If my Instagram feed was to be believed, Donald Trump would have lost this election by a landslide. Selena Gomez interviewed Kamala Harris, posting the video to her 195 million Instagram followers. Taylor Swift, who copped backlash for not disclosing her choice of candidate in 2016, baked a tray Biden/Harris 2020 cookies. Cardi B, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have all thrown their weight behind him. How, with the combined weight of the film, music and fashion industries behind him, could Joe Biden possibly lose?
We were, once again, lulled into a false sense of security. The entertainment industry’s united support of Biden—much like their support of Hillary Clinton in 2016—served to give the impression that he was a shoe-in for the presidency. But now the results are trickling in, and this election appears to be the tightest in two decades. It begs the question—are celebrity endorsements actually effective?
The answer is… it’s complicated. In 2008, Oprah endorsed underdog Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, when he was competing against favourite Hillary Clinton. A later study by Northwestern University showed that Winfrey’s endorsement was so influential it could be credited with snagging Obama the nomination, “The Oprah Effect” reportedly inspiring a whopping 1 million extra votes.
There is, however, little evidence to suggest that this phenomenon has ever been repeated. No other evidence in the last few decades has suggested the celebrity endorsements have a drastic impact on the outcome of elections. And there were so many factors that played out in 2008 (keeping in mind this was the primary, not the election itself) that aren’t comparable to 2016 or 2020.
Celebrity culture was more siloed then—social media wasn’t ubiquitous, and so access to the political opinions of A-listers was far less common. And Oprah’s influence in 2008 cannot be compared to any single celebrity today—The Oprah Winfrey Show had 9 million daily viewers at its peak, while O Magazine has a monthly circulation of 2.3 million. And lest we forget that this is Barack Obama we’re talking about—Oprah may have been the messenger, but the charismatic senator from Illinois did the rest on his own.
That being said, celebrity PSAs unequivocally increase voter registration. In 2018, when Taylor Swift encouraged her then-110 million Instagram followers to vote in the midterm election, 65,000 people registered within 24 hours. Last month Kylie Jenner made a similar plea—and registrations increased by 1,500%. Ariana Grande pleaded with residents of her native Florida to vote, leading the voter registration site to crash. Later data showed there were 1.1 million requests in a single hour.
But Florida went to Trump regardless—just like the Texas senate race went to Ted Cruz in 2018, despite a glowing endorsement for his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, by Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And while the promotions of the Calabasas clique à la Kylie Jenner, Hailey Bieber and Gigi Hadid are admirable, their homestate, California, has been reliably blue since before any of them were born.
All that said, we’d obviously prefer have celebrities use their vast power and influence to help get a racist accused rapist out of office, than not. And having young celebrities engage their followers with politics in a dynamic way is likely to make the next generation of voters less intimidated (or bored by) the democratic process. Here’s hoping that in the next few hours we’ll see their joint efforts help push things in the right direction.