Politicians seek to leverage celebrities to reach voters
A beer garden near downtown Atlanta filled for a recent event hosted by Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock aimed at Latino voters.
Some said they came to seek Warnock, who is seeking reelection in the midterm elections on Nov. 8 against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. But others came to see a particularly high-profile Latino who would be speaking on Warnock’s behalf — composer, actor and filmmaker Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Who I’m really here to see is Lin-Manuel Miranda, because I’m a really big fan of his,” said Camilla Estrada, of Atlanta, who described herself as liberal and said she plans to vote for Warnock.
Celebrity endorsements in politics are nothing new, and it’s unclear how much influence they have, said Mark Harvey, a management professor at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas. And some of the biggest fans at Miranda’s appearance Wednesday night, like 7-year-old Sophie Hinsbi, clutching a book from the animated Disney musical “Encanto,” were too young to vote. But that hasn’t stopped politicians from showcasing celebrities, hoping to reach voters who may be on the fence.
Georgia Democrats spent the first week of the state’s 19-day early voting period in frantic activity, as they implore supporters to vote in advance. Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams each held multiple events a day. Miranda also appeared with Abrams at a restaurant in suburban Lawrenceville on Wednesday, while the Abrams campaign later rolled out a recorded chat with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday night.
Almost 575,000 people had voted in Georgia by the end of Thursday, roughly on pace with the 2020 presidential election when 5 million votes were cast in the state, buoying Democratic hopes that a big turnout might help them.
Celebrities have also gone directly into politics in 2022, including Walker, a University of Georgia football star. When Walker interacts with voters, fans line up to implore him to sign jerseys and even commemorative soda bottles from the Bulldogs’ 1980 national championship. There’s also Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, a doctor who made a fortune as a TV show host.
They’re following the footsteps of others, including former President Donald Trump. Harvey said his research showed Trump was particularly effective at dominating news coverage in 2016, and noted that he had heard a lot about Walker despite living far from Georgia.
“When you get a celebrity in there, you’re probably going to get a whole lot more free coverage,” Harvey said.
In Atlanta, Miranda noted that he had a history of supporting Warnock, mentioning an online fundraiser that the original cast of “Hamilton” held for Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff in 2020, as the two were pushing toward January 2021 runoff victories that gave Democrats control of the Senate. Both he and Warnock argued that the stakes are just as high this year.
“You hate to be the guy who quotes the lyrics from the band, but history has its eyes on you,” Miranda told the crowd, recycling the title of one “Hamilton’s” many popular songs.
Harvey, who wrote a 2017 book about celebrity influence in politics, said there’s strong evidence that celebrities can draw media attention to issues. Less clear is whether a celebrity can spur a disengaged voter to cast a ballot.
“Whether or not it goes from somebody’s brain having read it to ‘Now I care about the race,” that’s something that I think is very difficult to document,” Harvey said.
The professor said research on celebrities who endorse and market products shows such advertising is “not nearly effective as you might think.” Harvey said that it might be reasonable to assume that celebrity endorsements of candidates might be similarly hit-or-miss.
Still, famous people continue to wade into politics. Democrat Cisco Aguilar, running for secretary of state in Nevada, rolled out an endorsement video from Miranda on Friday. Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman hosted a fundraiser with “Ant Man” star Paul Rudd this week, and musician Dave Matthews will play at a Fetterman rally in Pittsburgh next week.
Mixed martial artists, including several who have publicly supported Trump are the celebrities of choice for some Republicans. In Arizona, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has been making appearances with former Ultimate Fighting Championship champion and Olympic wrestling gold medalist Henry Cejudo, calling them fight nights, and appearing on a stage adorned with an American flag and punching bags.
“They never back down from a fight,” Lake’s campaign wrote in an email to supporters. “Join these two champions for a knock out night fighting for Arizona.”
In Nevada, Republican candidate for governor Joe Lombardo was endorsed Thursday by Dana White, the president of UFC, hailing Lombardo’s law enforcement credentials.
“Sheriff Lombardo kept law and order here in Vegas,” White said in a video. “He protected our businesses and our families and kept our streets and schools safe.”
In Georgia, Kemp has attacked Abrams as “Celebrity Stacey,” saying last month that Abrams is “running her campaign to cater to liberal elites” and not to Georgians, and mocking Abrams, a Star Trek fan, for her cameo appearance earlier this year as president of Earth in “Star Trek: Discovery.”
“While Stacey Abrams continues to solicit the help of out-of-state billionaires,” Kemp spokesperson Tate Mitchell said after Thursday’s Oprah Winfrey event, “Gov. Kemp will continue to talk to hardworking Georgians about his record of economic success and plan to build a safer, stronger Georgia.”
Abrams, though, told reporters after her appearance with Miranda that she’s not worried about her celebrity appearances backfiring, noting Georgia’s burgeoning film and television industry, which is financed by state tax credits.
“Am I concerned that famous people who pour $4.4 billion into our economy know where Georgia is?” she said. “No I’m not.”