Day 6

From Sinatra to Taylor Swift: 100 years of celebrity political endorsements

Celebrities have been making political endorsements for nearly a century. Picking sides used to be a gamble for stars, but today, staying on the sidelines carries its own risks.

65,000 people registered to vote after Swift gave her support to Democratic midterm candidates

Taylor Swift accepts the award for favourite pop/rock album for Reputation at the American Music Awards on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. (Matt Sayles/Invision/Associated Press)
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Taylor Swift wants her Tennessee fans to vote, and she's backing the Democrats.

In a surprise Instagram post, the Look What You Made Me Do singer threw her support behind Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper, the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in her home state.

"I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country," she wrote.

The star has been silent about her political leanings in the past, and the post ignited a storm of activity on social media. 

Swift wasn't the only celebrity making an effort to sway politics this week. Kanye West also made headlines when he sat down for lunch with U.S. President Donald Trump on Oct. 11.

The same day, Willie Nelson released a studio version of Vote Em Out, his campaign song endorsing Democratic Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke.

But celebrity political endorsements are nothing new.

"You can go back as early as 1920 to see some of the first examples of that," Mark Harvey, author of Celebrity Influence, told Day 6.

Al Jolson and Mary Pickford

Al Jolson, who was considered the world's greatest entertainer at the time, rallied behind U.S. presidential candidate Warren G. Harding in the lead-up to the 1920 election.

"Jolson sang a song called Harding, You're The Man for Us," Harvey said. "Then he ended up doing the same thing four years later with Calvin Coolidge."

Mary Pickford, a celebrated silent film star, also championed the eventual 29th President.

But their support wasn't necessarily a sign of their political beliefs.

"It was an ad agency [that asked them] and they were just sort of doing it for commercial purposes," Harvey added.

Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte

It wasn't until a couple decades later that celebrity endorsements picked up steam once again, Harvey said.

In the '40s, crooner Frank Sinatra campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt. Years later, he — along with Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland — would support John F. Kennedy.  

Political endorsements were risky for celebrities back then. According to Harvey, publicly supporting a candidate would run afoul of some contracts. He likens it to the recent pushback against Colin Kaepernick, who was dropped by the NFL after taking a knee during the national anthem.

"The very fact that Sinatra was ... as big as he was allowed him a little bit more flexibility to do that," Harvey said.

Oprah

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, it was Oprah who was widely credited with getting out the vote.

"According to some statistical calculations that were made, it probably netted Obama a million votes in the Democratic primary," Harvey said, adding that her support may well have played a role in his presidential win.

Still, celebrity political endorsements don't guarantee success. Eight years later, countless celebrities — Oprah included — rallied behind Hillary Clinton in her unsuccessful bid against now-U.S. President Donald Trump.

Why endorse?

Harvey says that times have changed since the days of Jolson and Sinatra.

"Nowadays, it seems like celebrities get in trouble if they don't take a side on a political issue or if they don't make certain endorsements," he said.

Oprah Winfrey openly supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during their presidential bids. (Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

In early 2017, Swift was dragged online for missing the Women's March — a global march protesting Donald Trump's presidency — despite having tweeted her support for it.

"I think that Taylor Swift and so many of these other people, they're feeling like in order to connect with their audience they need to say something — and that's something fairly new," Harvey said.

Despite the potential power of a celebrity endorsement, Harvey encourages voters to do their own research on political candidates. 

"You should take your celebrities like you take your friends: if somebody is really well informed, then maybe their opinion should matter," he said. "But I think more importantly than that ... you should be seeking out the facts and really making good decisions on your own.


To hear more from Mark Harvey, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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