Celebrities' Effect On Elections
She said she does learn a lot about candidates through the press attention celebrities get for their candidates, though, especially information of interest to young voters.
"It's a target group that you're hitting that you wouldn't otherwise: younger, less politically knowledgeable people," Ishikawa said. "Celebrity endorsements are targeted towards young adults and a way of getting information to us."
In elections, celebrity endorsements have become common and can sometimes be used to directly influence people to vote for a particular candidate, but more often are used to give a candidate free press or money through fundraisers that celebrities host.
USC junior Tony Martinez, who voted in the 2008 presidential election, said celebrities did not affect his decision in 2008, even though they did impact some of his friends.
“I think celebrities definitely influence people’s opinions because when it’s someone’s name that you’ve heard or read about all the time they get into your subconscious,” Martinez said. “They are someone you recognize and get in your memory. So, if you haven’t read up on some of the issues, you’re going to think back on who influences your life and they may make you choose a candidate.”
Like Ishikawa, USC sophomore Mason Khoo will vote for the first time on Nov. 6, 2012.
Even though Khoo admits, “I’m not super into politics,” he said he will read about the candidates’ opinions on a variety of issues before casting his vote and not rely on celebrities for guidance.
“I don’t see them (celebrities) as that big of a deal,” Khoo said. “It’s not like they’re the ones that are going to be running the country.”
Martin Kaplan, the director of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, said that he doubted a celebrity endorsing a particular candidate would cause anyone to vote for that person.
He said that celebrities do, however, affect voters by increasing the amount of media coverage candidates receive and by holding fundraisers to raise money for the candidate’s campaign.
“Celebrities mainly do two things: they help candidates raise money, and they bring attention to candidates,” Kaplan said. “I doubt that people vote for anyone because a celebrity has supported a candidate. But people might pay to attend a benefit concert or cocktail party fundraiser where the candidate will be, and the media's coverage of celebrity endorsements often means that a candidate gets more airtime, known in campaigns as "earned" or "free" media, or news, as opposed to paid media, which means ads.”
Bryn Nottoli, a junior at North Park University in Chicago, Ill., said that the press time celebrities give candidates benefits the candidate.
“It’s more media coverage,” Nottoli said. “Any free TV time that a politician can get is good.”
Johanna Blakley, the deputy director of the Normal Lear Center at USC and an expert in celebrity and popular culture, also said that celebrities help politicians get free press.
“Celebrities are useful to political campaigns because media outlets know that they can deliver audiences to advertisers when they cover celebrity activities,” Blakley said. “Political campaigns have limited budgets for purchasing media spots and so they are effectively guaranteed free media coverage when a celebrity is associated with their campaign.”
Daniel Schnur, a campaign strategy expert and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, agreed that celebrities give candidates increased media coverage, which helps candidates gain exposure and spread their ideas.
“Celebrities definitely have an impact on a voter’s decision-making process, but not necessarily by convincing those voters who to support,” Schnur said. “Rather, what a celebrity can do is get voters to pay more attention to a candidate than they would under other circumstances.”
“Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics, so once a celebrity gets involved in a campaign, it increases the candidates’ chances of persuading the voter,” Schnur added. “If you are trying to talk another person into something, your chances are a lot better if you have more time to make the sale.”
Marissa Abbott, a sophomore at the University of Rochester in N.Y., agreed that by garnering more press for candidates, celebrities allow them to spread their platforms and increase the number of people who know about the candidate.
“If a certain celebrity were getting enough press for a candidate, that candidate could be more well-known and be voted for,” Abbott said.
Darry Sragow, a professor of political science at USC and an expert in elections, said that even though celebrities do attract press attention for candidates, it is not always good press and can sometimes hurt the candidate.
“Voters really just don’t care what they (celebrities) think about who they’re going to vote for,” Sragow said. “In fact, if a campaign pushes that too hard, it can backfire. In some cases, when you’re running for president of the United Sates, for example, it can add some glare, but if you’re not careful, voters will react very badly to a campaign that appears to be bragging about celebrity support. Celebrities aren’t viewed as people that are serious about public policy.”
Sragow also said, however, that most celebrity endorsements do not have an impact on voters.
For a celebrity’s endorsement to help a candidate, Schnur and Sragow said the celebrity needs to be someone who is respected.
Schnur said that endorsements from influential, reputable celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney or Gary Sinise would help a candidate, while an endorsement from someone such as Lil Wayne is unlikely to affect voters.
Sheila Murphy, an expert on the effect of mass media and an associate professor of communication at USC, agreed and said that the support of someone such as Mel Gibson could actually hurt a candidate because he comes with “baggage.”
A study conducted by Forbes magazine read a list of celebrities to 2,213 men and women over 18 and asked how they would respond if the celebrity was to endorse a candidate.
The study found that an endorsement from Winfrey would have a 14 percent positive impact on the perception of the candidate and an endorsement from Clooney would have an 11 percent positive impact.
An endorsement from Rosie O’Donnell, however, had a 36 percent negative impact on the perception of a candidate.
The 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary is an instance where a celebrity endorsement positively affected a campaign.
“Polls suggest that Oprah’s endorsement of Obama hurt Hillary Clinton because she has a large audience and is respected as a spokesperson,” Murphy said.
A study conducted by Craig Garthwaite, an assistant professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University, and Timothy Moore, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, found that Winfrey’s endorsement of President Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary increased the number of votes he received.
The study concluded that Winfrey’s endorsement was responsible for 1,015,559 votes for Obama, with a 95 percent confidence interval.
The study also found that counties where O: The Oprah Magazine’s circulation is largest contributed more money to Obama’s campaign after Winfrey announced her endorsement.
University of Missouri freshman Hallie Herrmann agreed that someone such as Winfrey could influence a large number of voters.
“Someone that people respect and someone in power, like Oprah in particular, there’s a huge African-American community that respects her and idolizes her like no other,” Herrmann said. “I’m sure they also like Obama and could relate, and I’m not saying that’s the only reason people voted for him, but when there’s a celebrity or someone in power that people look up to and they have something positive to say, I don’t think that changes their whole decision, but I think it has an influence to some degree."
How likely a celebrity is to influence a voter, however, may depend on the degree of similarity between the voter and the celebrity.
“The more similar a person is to a celebrity, the more likely they are to know and identify with them … similarity based on other cues such as race/ethnicity—Oprah probably had a bigger impact on African Americans—gender, again Oprah probably had a larger impact on women, social class—Joe Biden has more credibility with blue collar workers than Obama—would also be factors,” Murphy said.
A significant role that celebrities play in campaigns is hosting fundraisers for candidates.
“Rather than influencing votes, celebrities are probably most helpful in appearing at fundraisers, and like other wealthy Americans, convincing peers to donate as well,” said Karen Sternheimer, a USC associate professor of sociology and an expert in celebrity culture and influence.
Sragow agreed and said that the best way a celebrity can help a candidate is to get others to donate money.
“The best use of a celebrity is to have a celebrity show up at a fundraiser and press the flesh with your high dollar contributors,” Sragow said.
Leo Braudy, an English professor at USC and an expert on celebrity culture and mass media, said the money celebrities raise is very important to a candidate’s campaign.
“Celebrities might entice other people to raise money which is important in terms of hiring people to go around and canvas, which are all things that campaigns need,” Braudy said.
Some experts disagree, arguing the media attention celebrities provide for candidates is more helpful than fundraisers.
“Celebrities help candidates generate attention, which is key in the current very cluttered media environment,” Murphy said. “That is probably worth more votes than the money donated.”
Schnur, like Murphy, argued that while financial support is valuable, a candidate’s greatest challenge is exposure, so the exposure celebrities provide candidates is more valuable than money raised.
Blakely, however, identified another respect in which celebrity fundraising provides the most valuable tool for candidates: the activity runs little risk that the celebrity will distort the candidate’s campaign message.
“Private fundraising events are the safest way for politicians to engage with celebrities because the media has little access to what unfolds at the event itself, where it is possible that a celebrity may stray from the message that a politician has carefully crafted for a broad electoral audience,” Blakely said. “Public events in which politicians share the stage with musicians or actors, for instance, are far more risky because the celebrity can overshadow the politician and there’s no guarantee that the celebrity will stick to the campaign message.”
Another factor some cite in gauging a celebrity’s impact is the age of the voter.
“We (younger voters) are still forming our own opinions and when you’re older you’ve already worked out an understanding and know how the issues really affect your life and you become more involved and have formed your own opinions,” Martinez said.
Murphy, however, said there is no evidence to suggest that a young voter is more likely to listen to a celebrity than an older voter.
Kaplan agreed and said that a voter’s age is not as important as relating to the celebrity’s life experiences.
Schnur also said that age does not affect whether a voter listens to a celebrity.
“The greater amount of attention the voter pays to politics and government, the less of an impact a celebrity’s endorsement is going to have,” Schnur said. “So, a very well-read 21-year-old is less likely to be influenced by a celebrity then a 50-year-old who doesn’t pay a lot of attention.”
Sragow added that geography also does not play a part in whether someone would listen to a celebrity about who to vote for and that someone in L.A., a place filled with celebrities, was no more likely to listen to a celebrity endorsement than someone in Oklahoma.
Braudy said that no matter where a person lives, a celebrity’s effect on elections is indirect and celebrities are often more useful in promoting causes then specific candidates.
“Celebrities can gather strength for causes, the same way they can publicize diseases, social problems that need to be taken care of, or with George Clooney for example, the whole business in Darfur and what was happening in Darfur rather than specific candidates,” Braudy said. “When they (celebrities) support something for the social good, that can be more effective. They can highlight a cause that might otherwise pass below the radar. A cause rather than a particular person (is beneficial).”
When the millions of Americans old enough to vote go to the polls next November, it is unlikely, experts say, that they will be thinking that they are voting for a particular candidate based on a celebrity’s endorsement of him.
The voter may, however, have been influenced without realizing it, largely because celebrities may have given their favored candidate more time in the spotlight and more time and money to convince a voter to cast a ballot for him.
Reach associate news editor Hannah Madans here.
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