Celebrity Endorsements: Decisive or Divisive?

Celebrities are not a shy bunch, and they don’t become so when a presidential race rolls around.

This campaign season, actors, musicians, sports figures and other entertainers have stepped forward to endorse candidates in the Democratic primaries. Jerry Seinfeld and Carole King have lined up beside John Kerry. Michael Moore and Madonna backed Wesley Clark. Martin Sheen—aka president Jed Bartlet—threw his support behind Howard Dean. When the time comes, George Bush can expect his share of star supporters, too.

There are benefits for both sides. Entertainers need to be in the public eye. Politicians can shine in the glow of celebrity. But there are drawbacks. Some endorsements, experts say, can be more trouble than they’re worth.

L. Patrick Devlin, professor of communications studies at the University of Rhode Island, doubts whether candidates get any real traction from celebrity endorsements. “It can be equated with a celebrity endorsing a product,” he said. “They bring great visibility and reputation, but whether that translates well for the product is questionable.”

Such endorsements can be traced to Frank Sinatra’s support of John F. Kennedy, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The Kennedy campaign was something of a Hollywood production,” Sabato said. “Johnson was always envious of Kennedy’s connections, and he tried to find those he could use, such as getting Carol Channing to sing ‘Hello, Lyndon’ based on ‘Hello, Dolly.’ ”

These days, Sabato said, celebrities “could help [candidates] build name identification, they are eye candy, and along the way voters may incidentally pick up a message. The minus is that people have always been suspicious of the Hollywood type as selling things. They tend to put our guard up and lack credibility.”

Sabato points to Adlai Stevenson’s failed presidential bid in 1952. When adman Rosser Reeves chose to market Dwight Eisenhower as though he were marketing a product, the Stevenson camp complained. “Stevenson said, ‘Now politicians can be sold like cornflakes,’ ” said Sabato. “We associate celebrities with selling anything, as crass, as doing anything for the paycheck.”

Among the Democrats this year, Kerry and John Edwards have had the most luck—i.e., the least trouble—with celebrity endorsements. Kerry counts Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), James Taylor and Kathleen Turner among his supporters. Edwards’ backers include Ashton Kutcher, Glenn Close, Dennis Hopper, Jennifer Garner, Larry David, Barbra Streisand and Rita Wilson.

Clark and Dean have had a somewhat rougher time. In Clark’s case, an endorsement from filmmaker and liberal advocate Michael Moore proved especially prickly. Moore used Clark’s stump to label President Bush “a deserter”—a claim that the press hounded Clark to back up. The endorsement did little for Clark’s candidacy, but it did have the effect of encouraging the press to revisit the time Bush spent in the National Guard.

“Celebrities are generally out there expressing their own opinions,” said Bill Buck, who served as national press secretary for the Clark campaign. “The vast majority of the time, it’s not incongruous with the candidate’s.”

Less troublesome was Madonna’s embrace of Clark. As part of her endorsement, the pop star posted a love letter on her Web site that linked to Clark’s. (“I’ve never done this before,” it read in part. “But life is about taking risks, is it not? … I know that people seem to pay attention to everything I do. Big or small. Ridiculous or sublime.”)

Clark was also endorsed by John Cusack, Mike Myers, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. None had been scheduled to appear in campaign ads, even before Clark dropped out of the race. “Political advertising is about connecting with voters, not throwing someone up in an ad just because they’re famous,” Buck said.

Howard Dean won support from the likes of Michael Douglas, Melissa Etheridge, Paul Newman and Rob Reiner. But Martin Sheen’s may be the endorsement that lingers in voters’ minds. At a campaign event, Sheen referred to the former Vermont governor as John Dean. (Sheen played John Dean, the Watergate figure, in the 1979 TV movie Blind Ambition.)

But the Democrat who earned perhaps the most celebrity support is Dennis Kucinich. The most liberal of the contenders, he received nods from Danny Glover, Ed Asner, Peter Coyote, Willie Nelson, Roy Scheider and many others. Kucinich was also endorsed by celebrity gurus Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and Deepak Chopra.

For now, the focus is on the Democrats. But President Bush will earn his share of endorsements during the general election. His supporters in 2000 included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bruce Willis, Hank Williams Jr. and Chris Evert.

“Actors and performers become socially and politically active because they understand the power of the profession they’ve chosen for their lives,” said Carlton Jackson, Kucinich’s marketing and advertising co-director. “They’ve gained a social status where all their needs are taken care of and they start to think, ‘What can I do for society?’ ”

The answer might also depend on geography. Roger Salazar, national spokesman for the Edwards campaign, pointed out that while Gray Davis used Sheen and Magic Johnson in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign in California, such endorsements “may not play in other parts of the country. California is much more used to seeing celebrities as part of the political scene, as you can see by our governor.”

Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, who has worked on a number of political campaigns, agrees that some endorsements are risky—even for the celebrities. “If you are [a celebrity who is] backing someone who doesn’t do well or screws up, your constituency may turn on you for not figuring that out ahead of time,” he said. Actors “may get points for courage, but their agents would probably say, ‘Why put yourself in that position?’ ”

When Michael Jordan appeared in ads for former U.S. senator and NBA star Bill Bradley in 2000, Jordan “didn’t appear to be all that convinced,” Hillsman said. “Which only leads somebody to say, ‘What does Michael know about politics?’ ”

Whatever their impact on elections, celebrity connections are, at the very least, appreciated ex post facto. As Sabato pointed out, the photographs of Richard Nixon with Elvis Presley and getting what Sabato called “the great hug of ’72” from Sammy Davis Jr. are two of the most requested photos in the Nixon library.