Republicans and conservatives used to complain about celebrity involvement in politics, even though the party brought us President Ronald Reagan and Congressmen Sonny Bono and Fred Grandy. Conservative criticism of the entertainer continued after the GOP nominated a reality TV host with no public service experience for president in 2016, often excluding eventual President-elect Donald Trump.
Scholars have done a lot of research on the positive effects of celebrity political endorsements. By positive influence, I mean research showing that, under the right circumstances, celebrity support for political candidates and beliefs can influence the public’s preference for agreeing with the celebrity. There is also some evidence that taking a political stand can even improve a celebrity’s standing in the public mind. On the other hand, some studies have found little or no effect of celebrity political endorsements.
I’ve recently become interested in people whose celebrity political endorsements don’t seem to work. Is there a group of potential voters who reject celebrity endorsements entirely and rely entirely on other means to make up their minds? To find out, I reviewed some survey data my Bowling Green State University (BGSU) colleague Melissa Miller and I collected ahead of the 2016 Ohio presidential primary. The poll was conducted by Zogby Analytics on October 16-17, 2015, and included 804 likely voters in the 2016 general election, with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. While this data is not new, it still helps us understand the important role celebrities play in politics.
Respondents were asked whether the assumed presidential support for each of the seven celebrities would increase, decrease, or not affect their likelihood of voting for the candidate. Celebrities weighing their potential endorsers include George Clooney, Beyoncé, Trace Adkins, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Nugent, Eva Longoria and Lena dunham. These celebrities were chosen for their diversity of race, gender, party and ideology. If voters are going to be influenced by celebrities, one of them certainly should. In each case, respondents overwhelmingly said celebrity endorsements would have no impact, although in some cases celebrities could pull votes.
To investigate this further, I decided to look at people who said that each of the seven celebrities’ potential endorsements would not affect their own vote. Think of these respondents as “celebrity resistant” or at least “celebrity indifferent”. Exactly 46.1% of the respondents said that every endorsement by a star will not affect their vote. Who are these people?
First, they were more likely to be women than men (48.1% vs. 41.8%), and they were more likely to have no college education than to have a college education (48.9% vs. 43.2%). There were no differences in age, but those not affected by any celebrity endorsements were from the higher income brackets measured. Additionally, African-Americans (37%) were significantly less likely to be immune to any celebrity endorsements than others (47.1%). In terms of religion, those who identified as born again were significantly less likely than others (43.3% to 55.2%) to be unaffected by the endorsement.
There are also many significant differences in political orientation. Union members were more likely than others to be immune to any celebrity endorsement (53.1% vs 44.6%). Those who identified themselves as independents were about 10 percentage points more likely to be uninfluenced by celebrity endorsements than those who identified themselves as Democrats or Republicans. People who identify as moderates (56.1%) are more likely to be immune to celebrity endorsements than conservatives (38%) or liberals (41.9%).
Some of these differences are easier to explain than others. This time, let’s start with the political variables. Independents and moderates may be aware of a celebrity’s partisanship and ideological orientation, most of whom lean to the left and Democrats, and thus may reject their support, just as they may reject partisanship and generally consistent ideological preferences . Independents and moderates may see celebrity endorsements primarily as proxies for Democratic and liberal endorsements. On the other hand, union members may be accustomed to receiving political cues from union leaders and may resist celebrity endorsements as a result.
In terms of demographic variables, the difference between Black and other respondents may be due to the presence of support for the assumption that Oprah Winfrey is the most successful and influential African American of all time One of America’s celebrities. Other differences are a bit harder to explain. Are Women Inherently More Suspicious of Celebrities? Are there fewer born again? Why are college-educated respondents less likely to resist celebrity? Do celebrities defy common sense more than expertise? A possible partial explanation is that some of these demographic characteristics correlate and interact with other political and social variables, forming a complex combination that needs to be addressed in future research.
Of course, many factors besides demographic and political characteristics can influence how a person feels about entertainment and politics, including media preferences, especially social media use. Unfortunately, available survey data do not include this measure, but future research must. It’s also possible that some people simply refuse to participate in celebrity culture for specific reasons that may not show up in survey studies.
The data reviewed here suggests that there is a core group of American voters unimpressed by celebrity endorsements. However, they appear to be a minority voter. While certain demographic characteristics and political beliefs help explain who is resistant or indifferent to celebrities, we cannot say that these characteristics cause individuals to be unimpressed by any celebrity endorsement. As celebrity involvement in politics grows, will more voters turn against celebrities, or at least become more critical? Will there be more star candidates and endorsements left and right? Since the next election is always just around the corner, we won’t have to wait long to find out.
David J. Jackson is a professor of political science at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His main research area is the relationship between entertainment and politics, especially the role of celebrity endorsement in politics. He has also written about the Polish diaspora in North America and organized labor electoral tactics in the United States. He is the author of the book”entertainment and politics“