The Corner

Elections

Do Celebrity Cameos Help Much at Conventions or on the Campaign Trail?

Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus speaks during the final night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, August 20, 2020. (2020 Democratic National Convention/Pool via Reuters)

Given a choice, a political party would rather have a celebrity endorsement than not have a celebrity endorsement. For the Democrats, the 2020 race is an embarrassment of riches, as almost the entire movie, television, and music industries are enthusiastic supporters of the Democratic Party in general and outspoken critics of President Trump in particular. The nights have been hosted by actresses Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The convention has featured performances by Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, Prince Royce, Billie Eilish, Maggie Rogers, Leon Bridges, and tonight The Chicks (formerly known as The Dixie Chicks) and Common. Oh, and then there was that surreal video from Billy Porter and Stephen Stills. NBA star Steph Curry is scheduled to appear Thursday night.

But. . . do celebrity endorsements or appearances in political contexts matter? Clearly they aren’t decisive. Four years ago, quite a few Democrats enjoyed scoffing at the notion that Scott Baio, Antonio Sabato Jr. or Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson counted as big names at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Sure, they certainly weren’t as big names as the comedians and singers in the Democratic convention’s “Fight Song” video.

In the closing days of the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton campaigned in Ohio with Jay-Z, Beyonce, LeBron James, and then moved on to Pennsylvania with Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi, and Bruce Springsteen. But the starpower didn’t impress the voters much; Trump won Ohio by eight percentage points and Pennsylvania by seven-tenths of 1 percent.

Alexander Sammon of the progressive American Prospect suggests that the convention organizers celebrity-mania is getting a little cringe-inducing — “Tom Perez and company have loaded the program up with celebrity hosts, the way an infomercial producer gets Cher to sell hairspray” — and that if Democrats wanted to energize young voters, they would be wiser to spotlight Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders.

Both parties can embrace celebrities a little too much; you probably recall Clint Eastwood’s unforgettable — or perhaps Unforgiven — speech with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention. Trump himself stepped into politics after years of being a pop-culture celebrity with a reality show.

At some point, spotlighting celebrities at an event like a political convention probably offers diminishing returns for a campaign.

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