It is only natural and probably sensible that candidates from either party will trot out prominent politicians, musicians, actors and celebrities that can gain them attention. After FDR garnered the support of many top Hollywood actors and actresses including Ronald Reagan, these kind of endorsements became commonplace. Still, I've always resented the assumption that if you just dress politics up in glitter and set it to a pulsating hip-hop soundtrack the kids, previously lethargic and apathetic, will perk up and start canvassing like their life depends on it.
Many of the celebrities, from, say, Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune fame who supports Fred Thompson to, obviously, Oprah, who endorsed Obama, appeal more to the general population than the younger set.
But, still, we are starting to see celebrity supporters geared specifically towards younger voters, such as Kal Penn from college favorite Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle campaigning for Obama. And and I guarantee we will see many more as we enter the general election.
So, the question is, do celebrity endorsements impact youth voting decisions? Some researches say, yes, or, well, maybe.
Professor David Jackson of Bowling Green State University suggests that young people are influenced by celebrity endorsements. He randomly distributed two versions of the same question featuring a political statement attributed to "anonymous" on half and to a celebrity "someone" on the other half.
Here is an example he used:
"Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against The Machine, said, "What passes for democracy today is a sham. It's all about raising money and owing favors to the wrong people." How do you feel about his comments?
(Please circle one response.)
5. AGREE STRONGLY
4. AGREE SOMEWHAT
3. NEITHER AGREE NOR DISAGREE
2. DISAGREE SOMEWHAT
1. DISAGREE STRONGLY"
He found that the celebrity endorsements influence opinions by reinforcing popular beliefs or making unpopular beliefs seem more palatable. However, he asks, "May we extrapolate this to vote choice? I'm not sure, but I think so, because the results are modest." Jackson goes onto note that he didn't think endorsements could easily cause students to switch previously held preferences, saying "I would suspect celebrity endorsements to be more likely to lead a young person from "undecided" to support for a candidate, and to reinforce support if it is already there."
Professor Jackson's concerns about the limitations of the interpretations of the research point out a key issue when it comes to celebrity endorsements and their influence - there is a tremendous difference between being interested in a candidate, voting for a candidate, volunteering for a candidate and other more profound forms of civic participation.
As Jane Fleming Kleeb, Executive Director of Young Voter PAC, points out "Just like you can't rely on text messaging tools alone to get young people to vote, you can't rely on celebrities to be the holy grail of getting young people to the polls. Talking to young people where they live and hang out will always win over any celebrity or new technology ... Involve celebrities but don't stop there."
Celebrity endorsements probably help with the lowest hanging fruit - increasing name recognition, sparking initial interest for people new to the process, opening the door a crack. But, beyond that, it is entirely up to campaign staffs to engage young people and activate them to actually go from "inclined to vote" to an actual voter (often a big gap) or, even better, a volunteer. Otherwise, the celebrity turns into a wasted opportunity.
Moreover, the most politically educated and savvy young people already most inclined to be active claim celebrity endorsements have little impact and seem rather shallow. Most echoed the sentiment of Raj Borsellino, a 21 year-old Obama volunteer, "No celebrity would really convince me to vote for someone. I already understand the issues so I don't know why their endorsement would matter." Cozell Wilson, 22, grudgingly offered "Ghandi" as a celebrity endorser who might motivate him to vote for a particular candidate but he thought the whole question was pretty irrelevant, saying, "John Travolta doesn't make me want to be a scientologist."
So, for those campaign consultants trying to figure out what celebrities to lure onto the trail in the coming months, here are a few recommendations from young people in Iowa:
Bryan Hill, 18 - The Beatles, but it would have to be all of them, not just John Lennon
Kaley Burriola Rivera, 18 - Cesar Chavez
Darrius Armstrong, 16 - Lil' Wayne or Malcolm X
Chris Brown, 20, Harvey Keitel
Cazzie Hammonds, 20 - Jim Morrison
Hillary Jacobs, 16 - Jennifer Aniston
Peter Tomka, 18 - George Washington
Kiashay Briggs, 18 - Tyler Perry
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