Do celebrity political endorsements make a difference?

Hollywood has once again come out against Donald Trump, but that did not stop him winning in 2016.

As the US gears up for a presidential election billed as perhaps the most consequential in history, celebrities have been not been shy in stating who they believe should run the country.

Brad Pitt is the latest A-lister to throw his weight behind a candidate, narrating an advert calling Joe Biden “a president for all Americans”.

Hollywood has come out heavily against Donald Trump, though he does have some celebrity support in the form of Cheers actress Kirstie Alley and musician Kid Rock.

Donald Trump
Celebrities have shared their disdain for Donald Trump, but it did not stop him winning in 2016 (Alex Brandon/PA)

While the majority of those in the entertainment industry have shown disdain for Mr Trump, it did not stop him sweeping to victory in 2016, raising the question of how much sway the rich and famous actually have over elections.

Jeremy Corbyn was heavily backed by stars at the 2019 general election but Labour suffered its worst defeat since 1935.

Steven J Ross, a history professor at USC and author of Hollywood Left And Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, told the PA news agency celebrity endorsements can make a difference – but only for the right candidate.

A respected entertainment industry figure coming out in support of a politician can attract vital attention during hectic campaigns, though it will not make much difference if the candidate is lacking, Prof Ross said.

He cites Hillary Clinton – who was backed by a formidable list of celebrities including Beyonce, Katy Perry and Robert De Niro – as an example of a nominee no amount of star power could have helped.

Mrs Clinton, who lost to Mr Trump, “ran the worst presidential campaign in my lifetime,” Prof Ross said.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton had huge backing from Hollywood stars but still lost the 2016 presidential election (Isabel Infantes/PA)

He said influential Hollywood studio boss Louis B Mayer was the first to realise the potential of celebrity endorsements in the 1920s.

And what the famous mogul found almost 100 years ago holds true today, according to Prof Ross.

“One of things Mayer did is he understood what I would say would be the fundamental fact of what is the impact of movie stars on politics – they draw eye balls to the politician,” he said.

“Mayer understood, and I think smart political operatives understand today, the American public isn’t stupid. Just because a movie star says ‘I’m endorsing candidate x’, doesn’t mean they’re going to automatically go out and vote for them.”

He added: “What celebrity endorsements do is they bring eyeballs to the candidate.”

Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt is supporting Joe Biden’s presidential bid (David Parry/PA)

Ahead of the 2020 election, it may seem as though Hollywood, long seen as a bastion of American liberalism, is throwing its collective weight behind Mr Biden’s campaign to oust Mr Trump from the White House.

But Prof Ross said it was important to remember the second word in showbusiness.

“You have to understand there are two Hollywoods,” he said. “There is corporate Hollywood and creative Hollywood.”

Looking back at corporate giving in presidential elections since the Second World War, the business side of Hollywood “has always tried to play it both ways”, giving money to Republicans and Democrats, Prof Ross said.

He added: “What people don’t understand, again, is they look at Hollywood as an art form. No. It is, but it is first and foremost a business. Studios are in the profit-making business, not the consciousness-raising business.”

While Prof Ross sees the potential for celebrity endorsements during political campaigns, he says history contains a warning for Mr Biden.

Anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972 on the back of support from stars including Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand – but suffered a landslide defeat against Republican Richard Nixon.

Prof Ross said: “Hollywood plays a huge role and yet McGovern gets killed in the general election. So the participation of Hollywood can backfire.”

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