The popular vote totals for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary came within 1 percent of each other. And some scholars suggest one person may have helped push the nomination Obama’s way: Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey was one of several celebrities who endorsed Obama in 2008. People came to associate the trust and admiration they have for Winfrey with Obama as well.
The time and money that campaign managers spend on scoring celebrity endorsements are worthwhile – to a degree. Obsession with celebrities penetrates the political arena and draws supporters by creating necessary buzz to distract from the critiques on the candidates’ policies and public record. Celebrity voices hold considerable clout among voters during close primaries. However, come November, the opinions of celebrities will not likely compel people to dramatically switch parties between Clinton and Trump.
Clinton has collected several vocal celebrity endorsements in the 2016 election. Christina Aguilera, John Legend, Ricky Martin and Stevie Wonder hosted a concert for Clinton in June. The cast of the TV show “The West Wing” campaigned across the battleground state of Ohio in September, encouraging people to register to vote for her. Many more, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Schumer, Morgan Freeman and Kanye West, have flocked to Clinton in the race leading up to the election.
Few celebrities, including Azealia Banks, Mike Tyson and Scott Baio, have endorsed Trump via social media. Though his celebrity fan base is smaller than Clinton’s, Trump is a self-endorsed celebrity. A reality TV star, he knows how to use his own popular appeal to sustain his brand.
A majority of Trump’s early supporters were regular viewers of the crowdpleaser show “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Fans of the show who are in awe of the aggressive “boss” figure and the brazen “you’re fired” persona don’t necessarily care about the more repulsive character or policy traits of the Republican nominee and make up his most committed and non-ideological supporters even now.
The constant excitement surrounding celebrities helps politicians achieve their fundraising goals and populate rallies and events. George and Amal Clooney helped Clinton raise $15 million for two sold-out fundraisers they hosted in April. Demi Lovato drew millennials in large numbers at an Iowa concert for Clinton in January.
Celebrities’ political opinions are just public relations efforts to increase their own popularity and relevance, and social media cheering for candidates will not sway UCLA students’ perceptions of the two remaining candidates, said Alexandra Lincoln, a third-year mathematics student. Students at UCLA typically get their news from actual media sources, not from popular celebrities, she said.
“But maybe I’m just being optimistic,” Lincoln said.
Celebrities endow candidates with their charm and can help bring young voters to the polls, however. Campaigns host get-out-the-vote rallies featuring celebrities to bolster voter turnout, said Rafi Sands, external vice president of the Undergraduate Students Association Council.
In the primaries, when contests are close and candidates do not differ greatly on policy, celebrity endorsements might persuade voters who may not be hooked on the nitty-gritty of campaign news like the specifics of tax and healthcare policies. One of the two candidates with similar policies might get away with a win because of the hype created by celebrity backing.
Celebrities can also validate people’s opinions or reassure them of their political preferences, said Neerja Vashist, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student.
On the fence about the choice between Bernie Sanders and Clinton during the primaries, Vashist ultimately picked Clinton because intelligent celebrities she respects picked Clinton. In March, Shonda Rhimes pointed out the similarities between Clinton and strong female protagonists on her TV shows in a video. Ellen DeGeneres said on “The Ellen Show” that Clinton has everything she wants in a president. The endorsements convinced Vashist to declare her support for Clinton in the primaries.
Similarly, if it weren’t for Winfrey, Clinton might have emerged as the winner of the democratic primary in the last election. In a 2008 study, Craig Garthwaite from Northwestern University and Timothy Moore from the University of Maryland concluded that Obama performed better in counties with more subscribers to “O, The Oprah Magazine.” Garthwaite and Moore controlled the study for socioeconomic and demographic factors like sex, race, education and income to ensure that a preference for Obama was not already correlated with a preference for Winfrey.
The study suggests that Winfrey influenced the decision of educated, white women who were more likely to be Clinton supporters. Ultimately, Winfrey’s endorsement for the nation’s first black president brought about a million votes to Obama in a cutthroat race. Clinton and Obama already appealed to similar audiences, but Winfrey delivered the voters on the fence.
The 2016 general election cannot be witness to the Oprah effect. Clinton and Trump differ on everything from qualification to key demographics to policies. Their supporters lie at opposite ends of the political spectrum and are too hinged in their political principles to flip completely to the other side only at the urging of pop stars.
Hollywood is largely liberal, which means that the pop star idols of many Trump fans are supporting Clinton. However, unyielding Trump supporters do not care what a pop star thinks of their chosen candidate, said leading campaign strategist Paul Maslin at a panel discussion on the 2016 election titled “Why History Matters” held at UCLA Thursday.
It is not unimaginable for celebrities to sway close elections. But in the current, irrevocably divided race for the highest political office in the country, the brand of a celebrity is not strong enough to make a difference.