“So it’s Harding, lead the G. O. P. Harding, on to victory. We’re here to make a fuss. Warren Harding, you’re the man for us.” – Al Jolson
If you haven’t heard this ditty before, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Not many people these days know much about our 29th president, Republican Warren G. Harding, much less remember his landslide victory over James Cox in the election of 1920. But the truth is, President Harding was far ahead of his time.
“Harding You’re the Man for Us” doesn’t quite have the ring of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” or “Born in the USA,” but an endorsement from the so-called “Greatest Entertainer in Hollywood,” Al Jolson, had a lot of pull at the time.
Jolson was the original Hollywood triple-threat — think Hugh Jackman meets Justin Timberlake, with a dab of pomade and a Homburg hat — and as part of Harding’s Front Porch media campaign, he teamed with actresses Lillian Russell and Mary Pickford to give Harding the first recorded celebrity endorsements in a U.S. presidential election.
From then forward, celebrity endorsements of candidates became commonplace. From the fanfare surrounding Kennedy’s Hollywood Rat Pack in the election of 1960, to the lesser known “Star” Wars waged between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, endorsements from celebrities in some capacity have become almost a necessity in presidential campaigns.
But does it really matter what an actor, singer or football player has to say about a candidate? Let’s face it: they’re not famous for being strategists or policy experts.
Over the decades, singer Frank Sinatra endorsed both Democratic and Republican presidents
It’s a double-edged sword. For example, an endorsement from Johnny Depp or Morgan Freeman, two of the most popular celebrities in the world, could carry some weight in generating positive public opinion about a candidate. On the other hand, an endorsement from Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen could become a PR nightmare.
Some studies suggest that an endorsement from a celebrity can actually have a quantifiable effect on a campaign. An article by Andrew Pease and Paul Brewer published in the “International Journal of Press and Politics” studied this correlation in relation to Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of presidential candidate Barack Obama in May of 2007.
This particular endorsement was significant for two reasons: first, Oprah is one of the most influential women in the world. Her show reached more than 45 million people each week, and this often – no, always – translated to an immediate increase in sales for the products or books she recommended. Second, Oprah had never before endorsed a presidential candidate, more often than not choosing to stay aloof from politics.
In studying the “Oprah Effect,” Brewer and Pease conclude that, while Oprah didn’t have a direct influence on Obama’s favorability rating, respondents were more likely to support Obama and saw him as more likely to win the presidency after the Winfrey endorsement.
A similar study on the “Oprah Effect,” published in the “Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization” by Craig Garthwaite and Timothy Moore, concluded that Winfrey’s endorsement not only increased Obama’s financial contributions and vote share, but also increased overall voter turnout. Their findings are not irrelevant in suggesting that Winfrey’s endorsement helped Obama win the election. They concluded that her support for Obama increased his vote share by one million.
But what about the other celebrities? Fortunately for Democrats like Obama, modern Hollywood leans disproportionately to the left. This discrepancy is entirely obvious when juxtaposing the number of Obama celebrity endorsements in 2008 against John McCain’s. Obama garnered endorsements from more than 80 Hollywood actors, with McCain listing only six actors and a comedian. We know now that endorsements from the most trusted and influential celebrities like Winfrey can potentially cause change in voter support and candidate vote share, but collecting a number of celebrity endorsements isn’t always a good thing.
For instance, in 2008 a group of Hollywood celebrities released a video in support of Obama’s campaign for president only to be met with media scrutiny. Obama, who had already been labeled a “rock star,” was attacked by the McCain campaign as being too much of a celebrity himself.
Similarly, actor and noted philanthropist George Clooney held a fundraising dinner for Obama in 2012. Nothing but good could come out of this since Clooney is a well-respected, influential celebrity, right? However, after attending the fundraising dinner, the media narrative shifted on Obama, accusing him of hobnobbing with Hollywood elites while the economy is struggling.
So we can generate a few conclusions: celebrity endorsements can help a campaign, but it really depends on the celebrity and depends on how they do it, and even then, the idiom “too much of a good thing” holds true. But there’s no denying that watching candidates squirm over awkward and sometimes downright strange celebrity endorsements can make for intriguing entertainment.