One lesson from the 2016 campaign: Celebrities guarantee attention, but they don’t ensure votes.
Few presidential candidates attracted as much A-list support as former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But rallies in Ohio with LeBron James, Beyonce and Jay-Z did not prevent Republican rival and President-elect Donald Trump from prevailing in a state President Barack Obama had won twice. A joyous election eve gathering in Philadelphia, featuring a performance by Bruce Springsteen, did not prevent Clinton from losing Pennsylvania, where no Republican had won since 1988.
Meanwhile, Trump’s notable guests in the days leading up to his stunning victory included rocker Ted Nugent, whose last top 20 album came out in 1980. The Democratic National Convention featured appearances by Meryl Streep, Katy Perry, Lena Dunham and many others. One of Trump’s few celebrity endorsers at the Republican gathering was Scott Baio of Happy Days fame.
And it didn’t seem to matter.
“The overwhelming majority of voters know who they’re going to vote for long before the election and don’t decide based on celebrity endorsements,” says Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine whose books include How We Forgot the Cold War and Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.
“I know it’s hard to believe but there were more powerful political forces at work in Pennsylvania than Bruce Springsteen.”
On Thursday, celebrities themselves were still absorbing the election’s results. Actress Kyra Sedgwick, a self-described “lefty, liberal, living in New York and California,” said she yearned to visit “Trump country” and find “what binds us together.” Singer and stage actress Deborah Cox said she was living through “a real sobering moment.”
“It’s a tough time. It’s a real sobering moment, I think, for the country,” she said.
Trump, the former Apprentice star and the candidate with the longest background in entertainment since Ronald Reagan, apparently only needed his own endorsement. During the campaign he seemed to spend more time fighting celebrities than being praised by them. He continued his feud with Rosie O’Donnell, had harsh words for Jay Z and defied the wishes of The Rolling Stones, Adele and other artists by playing their music at his campaign appearances.
But the entertainment industry’s distaste for Trump may also have contributed to his image as an outsider shunned by the country’s elite.
“I’m here all by myself,” he said during a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “Just me, no guitar, no piano, no nothing.”
Wiener says that getting support from a celebrity like Beyonce can “help create excitement — and headlines” but is less important than inspiring people to vote. In Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, for instance, turnout appeared to be down significantly from 2012, with preliminary results showing Clinton receiving some 60,000 fewer votes than Obama did four years earlier.
The effectiveness of celebrity campaigners has varied over the past few decades. Frank Sinatra‘s support of John F. Kennedy in 1960 has often been credited for helping the Democrat in a race in which he narrowly defeated Richard Nixon. Years later, Sinatra’s shift to the Republican Party and his backing of Reagan seemed to stand for millions of Democrats who also had turned more conservative. In 2008, Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm for Obama led The New York Times editorial board to declare that she deserved a “good chunk of credit” for his success by boosting his standing in “middle America.”
But A-listers can do little for candidates the public isn’t in the mood for electing. George McGovern’s challenge to President Richard Nixon in 1972 was avidly supported by many of the biggest names in music, movies and literature, including John Lennon, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson, Paul Simon and Warren Beatty. One Madison Square Garden show featured Tina Turner and Mama Cass. Nixon officials were so concerned about a planned Lennon protest tour that it attempted to have the ex-Beatle deported.
In the end, McGovern was defeated in a landslide.