The spectre of the 2016 presidential election looms heavily over the 2020 race. Those who witnessed Donald Trump’s victory four years ago will remember the “I’m with her” badges, the red hats embroidered with white letters, the hubristic optimism of political commentators going into Election Night. Some will revisit memories of the packed Jacob K Javits Convention Center and its literal glass ceiling that wasn’t meant to be broken.
For the more celebrity-obsessed among us, other sequences will come to mind: Beyoncé and Jay-Z on each side of the Democratic nominee, holding her hand and pulling her into a hug on the stage of a Get Out The Vote concert. Katy Perry on stage at the Democratic National Convention, telling the crowd that on Election Day, “you’ll be just as powerful as any NRA lobbyist, you’ll have as much say as any billionaire, or you can just cancel out your weird cousin’s vote if you like”. Miley Cyrus knocking on dorm doors on the campus of George Mason University in Virginia, urging students to support the Democratic ticket.
In the 2016 presidential race, Clinton was the undisputed queen of celebrity endorsements. Donald Trump got some too – but fewer, and certainly less splashy. While Clinton was rubbing shoulders with Beyoncé, Trump got shout-outs from the likes of Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. Her endorsements were roaring, his were at times tentative and subject to re-evaluation.
The most high-profile celebrity to express support for Trump in 2016 was Clint Eastwood, who told Esquire he’d “have to go” with the Republican candidate. But even that wasn’t a ringing endorsement, with Eastwood noting it was“a tough one” and “there's been just too much funny business on both sides of the aisle”. Four years later, in February 2020, he told The Wall Street Journal that “the best thing we could do is just get Mike Bloomberg in there”. (Bloomberg dropped out the following month and endorsed Joe Biden.)
Eastwood holds a particular spot in the history of political endorsements. In 2012, in a show of support for Mitt Romney, he infamously took the stage at the Republican National Convention to interview an empty chair, which was meant to represent President Barack Obama. The speech, which has been granted its own Wikipedia page, was denounced by aides to The New York Times as “strange”, “weird”, and a “theatre of the absurd”. Eastwood himself called it “silly” in his 2016 Esquire interview.
The empty chair moment exemplifies the discomfort surrounding celebrity endorsements in politics. We’ve accepted them to some extent as a staple of our political cycle, but we also begrudge them – especially if they turn ridiculous, or if we start questioning their efficiency. Clinton was Hollywood’s candidate in 2016, and yet she lost. Isn’t that a testament to the uselessness of celebrity endorsements?
Not exactly. David J Jackson, PhD, a professor of political science at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has researched the impact of pop culture and celebrity endorsements on young adults and their political inclinations. When asked about Clinton’s celebrity backers and whether they failed her, he points instead to the role of her campaign in her defeat, particularly around strategic decisions pertaining to the electoral college.
“Clinton lost the Electoral College because of fewer than 80,000 votes total in the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan,” Jackson tells The Independent. “Celebrities did not manage the Clinton campaign's choices of where to focus their efforts late in the campaign, and that campaign was criticised for ignoring Wisconsin.”
The Democratic candidate, he stresses, “won the vote of the people, it's just that those votes were not distributed in the right states to translate into an Electoral College victory”. But celebrities “brought enthusiasm and fundraising to Clinton's campaign, as well as reinforcement of their beliefs to potential Clinton voters”.
Yes, celebrity endorsements can backfire – not necessarily for the candidate they’ve chosen to back, but for the stars themselves. Back in 2018 Taylor Swift, whose career is rooted in Tennessee, endorsed Democratic candidates in the state’s midterms. That announcement was met with praise and fury alike – and, as seen in the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, was the result of much agony on the singer’s part. But that criticism hasn’t deterred most celebrities from sharing their political opinions. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, many have chosen to remain on the “do” side.
“Celebrities, like any public figures, are going to be criticised for what they do, no matter what they do,” Jackson says. “It seems to me that no-win situation has persuaded a number of them that it makes no sense to try to hide their beliefs, but instead to stand up for what they believe in the hopes of inspiring their fans to do the same.”
Celebrity endorsements have been far from absent of the 2020 presidential race. Dozens of stars have publicly endorsed Biden. Billie Eilish spoke in a video for the (virtual) Democratic National Convention in August, criticising Trump for “destroying our country and everything we care about”. Comedy legend Mel Brooks has endorsed Biden in his first ever political video, citing the president’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. Paul Rudd has handed out cookies to early voters standing in line in Brooklyn. Stephen Baldwin, who supported Trump in 2016, has expressed support for the Republican candidate once again. Ditto Kirstie Alley, who came under criticism earlier this month after tweeting she would cast her second vote for Trump because he’s “NOT a politician”.
“Some research I am working on does show that celebrities do risk losing fans for taking public stands on issue or endorsing candidates,” Jackson says. “Entertainment is still a business. Just as a restaurant could lose customers if it puts up a Trump or Biden sign, a celebrity could lose fans because of their political beliefs.”
The sword of celebrity endorsements is double-edged for politicians, too. After all, isn’t Hollywood synonymous with elitism – wealthy, sheltered people who can’t speak for the rest of us? Why should anyone care about their endorsements?
They still matter, Jackson says, especially in close elections – such as the 2020 race. Besides, the anti-celebrity argument often deployed by the right lost some of its rhetorical power when the GOP put the former host of The Apprentice in the White House.
“Formerly, Republicans criticised Democrats for caring about celebrity endorsements and deploying them in campaigns,” Jackson says. “That criticism is still made by some conservative commentators, but it makes a lot less sense now that the Republicans nominated and elected a reality TV celebrity who had no previous public or military service experience.”