Pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle have been predicting either red or blue waves in the upcoming November midterm election based on the day’s shifting headlines. But could there be a Swiftie Wave coming in Tennessee?
After glaringly sitting on the sidelines during the contentious 2016 presidential election when many fans wanted her to weigh in, Taylor Swift pivoted hard over the weekend in a pointed Instagram post in which she strongly endorsed two Tennessee Democrats: former two-term governor Phil Bredesen, running for U.S. Senate, and incumbent U.S. House member Rep. Jim Cooper.
“In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now,” Swift, 28, wrote while staying vague about what those precipitating “events” were. “I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country.”
While endorsing Bredesen, Swift strongly rebuked U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican whose stances on equal pay for women, the Violence Against Women Act and gay marriage Swift said she adamantly opposes. According to the Tennessean, a poll released on Sunday shows Blackburn gaining an 8-point lead (50-42) over her opponent in the wake of the recent rancorous national debate over the controversial confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; the lead is the largest any public poll has reported since Blackburn won the state’s Aug. 2 primary. Cooper’s seat is considered to be safer.
“To the extent that celebrities can make a difference, she is the type who can,” Anthony Nownes, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, tells Billboard of the potential impact of Swift’s endorsements. Nownes, the author of a series of studies on the impact of celebrity endorsements on elections, says there are three reasons Swift could make a difference: She has very high name recognition in her adopted home state, she’s not been very divisive previously, and she’s kept her political powder dry in the past, which could shield her from voter fatigue over the typical, predictable celeb endorsements.
“Based on my research and that of a handful of others, yes, there are many things more important [than celebrity endorsements: party identification is most important, the economy, what people think of the candidates personally,” he says. “But if it’s within a few points, celebs have the power to be an important factor in determining who wins.”
Nownes points to a study he did in 2012 in which he divided students into several groups and asked them to evaluate parties and candidates on a 0-100 scale — with one group receiving the information that the state’s most popular athlete, former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, was supporting Republicans, while actress Jennifer Aniston was backing Democrats.
“I found that people who were exposed to that information had slightly higher evaluations of the Republican Party, and it was the same with Democrats exposed to the Aniston information,” he says. A follow-up study showed that, in general, there was some evidence that celebrity endorsements — assuming the voter already liked the celeb — can move the needle a bit in terms of how that voter views the party. While Nownes readily admits that a celebrity endorsement is way down the list of factors when it comes to how Americans vote, “in a close election they could tip the balance — if the candidates are within 1, 2 or 3 percentage points.”
Vanderbilt University political science professor Josh Clinton specializes in election polling and, given the recent history of low voter turnout among millennials, he’s not sure if celebrity endorsements like Swift’s have the ability to change outcomes. “Typically people feel like celebrities are free to have their own opinion, but there’s not much evidence that because of people like Swift [they will change their vote],” he tells Billboard, adding the caveat that given the wholly unpredictable nature of our national politics these days “anything is possible.”
But because Swift has played her political cards so close to the vest in the past, the adamant nature of her Instagram post might make some people go out and vote. “If she increases voter turnout and gets young people to vote, that’s a really important thing,” Clinton says — noting that youth voting reached its lowest level in 20 years in 2014, even though at 31 percent of the population, millennials are the same cohort size as the Baby Boomers, with a huge potential impact on elections should they choose to vote.
For now, the Blackburn/Bredesen race is too close to call, so a point or two either way could help both candidates. Clinton has already seen how the Swift endorsement could become a talking point in the election, with Bredesen tweeting out a thank you to the singer on Sunday night (Oct. 7), thanking her for her kind words and stamp of approval.
Thank you for the kind words @taylorswift13. I’m honored to have your support and that of so many Tennesseans who are ready to put aside the partisan shouting and get things done. We’re ready for it. Last day to register to vote is October 9. https://t.co/6Xd6YyaJCG pic.twitter.com/CatUBkXPKe
— Phil Bredesen (@PhilBredesen) October 8, 2018
The endorsement has also, predictably, elicited some harsh blowback from some Republicans criticizing the singer for speaking out. “If you haven’t heard, multimillionaire pop star Taylor Swift came down from her ivory tower to tell hardworking Tennesseans to vote for Phil Bredesen,” Michael McAdams, regional press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a press release on Monday (Oct. 8).
“Bredesen is making it about what’s best for Tennessee… whereas Blackburn is making it about Trump and national issues,” Clinton says of the contrast that is in keeping with a national divide between the parties in this election season. In which case, he also says the endorsement has the potential to serve as a tool for Blackburn, pointing to how the Republican candidate might be able to use Swift’s stamp of approval as a way to galvanize her voting base against Bredesen, by using it as an example of “the Left Coast media and Hollywood elite” — Swift has a home in New York — trying to tell people in Tennessee how to vote.
Nonetheless, Nownes says that one of the benefits of getting a thumbs-up from a typically sideline-hugging celeb like Swift is leveraging her higher visibility and potential impact over such perennially involved celebs such as George Clooney. Because voters are not used to hearing her voice as often, it could cut through some of the noise, especially among millennials and other youth voting blocs. “Could it be the difference between winning and losing? Probably not,” he says. “But if it’s close, it’s not going to hurt, either. Because she’s not someone widely hated, and the vast majority of the people have made their minds up, it might appeal to a few people who are still on the fence.”
Mike Muse, who frequently covers the nexus of celebrity and politics on The Mike Muse Show on SiriusXM’s Insight talk channel (121), sees Swift as an important voice in the national political discourse, one that can signal to other artists that it’s OK to speak up. “Now is not the time to be silent, we’re all realizing how important the impact of politics are on our daily lives… and since 2016 politics have become pop culture, so as the nation has gotten more divided we’ve become more aware as the media and citizens have attacked celebrities for taking a stand and we’ve rallied around them in ways we haven’t before,” he says.
One of the reasons many artists are reluctant to speak out is fear of damaging their brand, something Muse has written about for CNBC, arguing that doing the right thing and speaking out on your values is often good for the bottom line. He pointed to the uptick in sales for former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick following the flap over his taking a knee during the national anthem. “Taylor couldn’t sit on the sidelines for much longer because she lives in a state where legislators have been antagonistic to all the things she believes in,” says Muse. “It comes to a point where you have to use your platform responsibly and if nothing else, it might get her followers to register to vote and think about these policies and not walk around blindly thinking these things will correct their courses on their own. The time when people think celebrities should shut up and dribble or shut up and sing are gone.”
Swift’s endorsements have already inspired quite a bit of commentary from each side, with both harsh backlash and some very adamant kudos for the singer.
Hey @taylorswift13 –
You just endorsed a Democrat in the Tennessee senate race with a ridiculous statement saying Marsha Blackburn, a woman, is against women
You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about
Your career has never recovered since Kanye ended it
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) October 8, 2018
@taylorswift13 So disappointed that you decided to play politics:(. I thought you were brilliant when you said, I am not going to tell people who to vote for, but I will encourage them to vote. With all the divide in this country, you were only place where politics didn’t matter.
— beatio (@beatio) October 8, 2018
read it/weep, ya old saltines. artists like @taylorswift13 & hell, even my band… we’ve all worked hard to build community using our music & our voices since we were 16. many ppl who support us grew up WITH us.
— hayley from Paramore (@yelyahwilliams) October 8, 2018
Yesterday Taylor Swift spoke out in favor of two Democratic candidates, Phil Bredesen & Jim Cooper
We need more celebrities to come forward before the midterms with their support of the candidates who mean the most to them.
Thank you @Taylorswift13!
Come on Celebrities!
— Ed Krassenstein (@EdKrassen) October 8, 2018