Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Phil Bredesen lost their races on Tuesday, and Stacey Abrams is barely hanging on to hers, even though the biggest celebrities in the country campaigned on their behalf. As voting data pours in, a trend emerges: Celebrities are great at getting press attention. They’re great at getting people to the polls. They’re not great, however, at driving the electoral outcomes they want.
Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee — the three states with the most noticeable celebrity involvement — all saw their highest midterm voter turnout levels in the past quarter-century. Voters in all three states chose the un-flashy Republicans over the celebrity-backed Democratic candidates. Conventional wisdom has held that increased voter turnout leads to Democratic victories. This time, conventional wisdom was wrong.
In the two days after Taylor Swift endorsed Bredesen in an Oct. 7 Instagram post, 212,871 people across Tennessee registered to vote. Kamari Guthrie, the director of communications for Vote.org, credits Swift for the spike in site traffic — she directed her 112 million Instagram followers to register to vote on the site. In the 36 hours between Swift’s post and the close of voter registration in Tennessee, Vote.org received at least 2,144 new registrations in the state.
But Bredesen lost the Senate race to Rep. Marsha Blackburn by 242,375 votes. The Taylor Swift Effect — as it was termed in multiple press outlets — caused a tidal wave of media attention, but was totally ineffective at the polls.
Abrams’ campaign for governor of Georgia had support from stars that ran deeper than endorsements; Oprah, Will Ferrell, and Michael Jordan each went door to door for her, taking selfies with local residents and urging them to vote for her. Turnout surged to 57 percent in Georgia, up from 43 percent in the 2014 gubernatorial election. But it looks like their efforts weren’t enough. Although she has not conceded, Republican Brian Kemp leads her in the vote tally by 1.6 percent.
In Texas, O’Rourke failed to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, despite raising $69 million against Cruz’s $30 million. Travis Scott and Kelly Rowland each joined O’Rourke at campaign rallies, and Beyonce and Khalid took to social media asking their fans to vote for him. He still lost, although he closed the margin from 16 points in 2012 to 2.6 points last week.
Star power used to pack a stronger punch at the polls. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Oprah’s endorsement of Barack Obama delivered an estimated 1 million additional votes to him. In February of 2016, however, a study from Bowling Green State University found that voters in Iowa were less likely to vote for a presidential candidate endorsed by a famous person.
According to the study, the only endorsements with net positive effects on a campaign are those that come from institutions like newspapers or unions. An endorsement by Oprah, for example, docked people’s likeliness to vote for her candidate by 5.2 points. A Beyonce endorsement backfired even harder, with a net negative effect of 19.9 points. The adverse effect was true for conservative-leaning stars as well, particularly Ted Nugent and Trace Adkins.
If celebrities became at least mildly toxic by 2016, why did one win the White House that year? Trump spoke to people who had been ignored by both parties. Celebrities speak to their audiences — people who were already listening.
Democrats have spent the past three years insisting that Trump is an entertainer who is totally ignorant about politics. In their fight against the celebrity president, Democrats may have inadvertently weakened celebrity itself. Every time a Democrat bemoaned Trump’s lack of government experience — an entirely valid point — they eroded the thing that makes endorsements powerful: a trust in celebrity brands. Perhaps Democrats have gotten people to think more critically about what famous people have to say. It’s a positive side effect of their campaign to delegitimize the president.
Trump’s win was due, in no small part, to a rejection of the idea that wealthy and powerful people should tell everyone else how to live. Now, high-profile wealthy people are trying to tell them how to vote. It’s no surprise that celebrity endorsements are partially backfiring, and motivating certain voters against the endorsed candidates.
As a nation of individualists, we like to think that our decisions are entirely our own. Even though studies show voters are influenced by everything from the outcome of pro sports games to the height of the candidates — we have to believe that we arrived at our voting decisions without subconscious interference. Even a voter who registered after seeing Taylor Swift’s instagram post will say that she registered of her own volition, and that Swift only presented the idea. This makes it all but impossible to measure how many individual votes were changed because of a famous person’s political statements.
What we do know, however, is that star-powered voter registration efforts succeeded. Tennessee, Texas, and Georgia all saw record-breaking levels of early voting, particularly among young adults. Pop culture is a tool that can only take candidates so far, and not across the finish line.