Tuesday’s midterm elections were a mixed bag for Washington pols – Democrats won back the House while Republicans kept the Senate – but they were something of a bust for Hollywood celebrities.
Oprah Winfrey’s support of Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial race? Beyonce’s endorsement of Beto O’Rourke in Texas? Taylor Swift backing Phil Bredesen in a Senate race in Tennessee? Close, so close … but no cigars for their chosen candidates.
Even actress Olivia Wilde’s mom, journalist Leslie Cockburn, lost her race for a Virginia House seat despite her daughter’s loving endorsement.
If nothing else, the Tuesday elections prove again that the influence of celebrities in American politics is rather less than it appears given the amount of attention their endorsements and campaign appearances usually attract.
“Celebrities don’t really have these huge, overall game-changing effects,” says David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University. “We shouldn’t expect them to.” They might help in very close races, but their net effect is “always going to be on the margins,” he adds.
Besides, the big-name endorsements were made in races in the deep-red South, says Mark Harvey, graduate program director at the University of St. Mary in Kansas and author of the 2017 book, “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-based Advocacy.” He says his research suggests celebrity influence is more persuasive in advocating for specific issues rather than individual political candidates.
“My hypothesis is that in a lot of these (midterm) races, you’re looking at the South where there’s an ingrained culture that at this moment in political history is very skeptical of coastal elites,” Harvey says. “One question I have is to what extent are people in this very conservative, anti-elitist culture rejecting Hollywood or entertainment people at face value?
“When you’re talking about Republicans versus Democrats, you’re talking about tribes, not issues, and it’s hard to persuade a tribe.”
So what does that portend for the 2020 presidential election campaign? Will celebs be even more out front about their politics, or will more of them go back to keeping their preferences to themselves? Don’t count on that.
Peter Levine, an associate dean at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University in Massachusetts, says most political scientists start with skepticism that celebrity endorsements make a big difference – and the midterms only proved them right. There are just too many other factors in play to pin down a loss or a win on a celeb’s say-so.
“Does (a celeb endorsement) hurt? I don’t think you can conclude that from these results,” Levine says. “My big-picture read is that the midterm elections were pretty much in line with predictions. I don’t see any evidence (of a celebrity negative effect); they just did not have a big positive effect.”
But what might change about the partisan breakdown of celebrities and politics? Democrats usually get the lion’s share, in quality and quantity. But Republicans have a reality TV star-turned-President Donald Trump as their main celeb, and he’s proved he doesn’t need (or want) anyone else in his spotlight during a campaign.