Campaign 2016: Why Celebrity Endorsements Are More Important Than You Think

George Clooney, Katy Perry, Elton John and Leonardo DiCaprio are among the most sought-after names in politics these days — and there’s a good reason for that

celebrity endorsements
Graphic: Eric Hernandez

From George Clooney to Katy Perry, A-list celebrity endorsements have become one of the hottest commodities in this year’s presidential race. According to a tally by TheWrap, more than 200 big name Hollywood stars have come out in support of their favorite candidate this election cycle.

But just how much weight do these endorsements actually carry? Pundits and scholars argue that celebrity endorsements have no effect whatsoever when it comes to persuading voters one way or the other.

“Hollywood endorsements don’t move any votes,” Jack Pitney, professor of government at California’s Claremont McKenna College, told TheWrap. “No one is going to vote for Donald Trump because Gary Busey endorsed him.”

But while star power may not inspire people to hit the polls, it certainly helps in emptying their pockets.

“Having celebrities can definitely assist in getting people to contribute and getting them engaged,” attorney and longtime Hillary Clinton fundraiser Dana Perlman told TheWrap. “If they can see Andra Day, Katy PerryElton John or Will Ferrell offer support then that is an extra incentive to get people to dig deeper into their wallets.”

Hillary Clinton handily wins the Hollywood primary race, with more celebrity endorsements than all the other candidates combined. The former Secretary of State’s list of A-list backers includes Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, America Ferrera, Lena Dunham, and Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders comes in second with his own roster of high-wattage stars such as Ryan Gosling, Susan Sarandon, Sarah Silverman, Mark Ruffalo and Danny DeVito.

It is no surprise that Hollywood prefers Democrats. Donald Trump, however, is still doing respectably among the rich and famous, perhaps because he’s one of them. Trump’s list of celebs includes Kid Rock, “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Roberts and rapper Azealia Banks. After Trump, the Republicans faring best, in descending order, are Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and lastly, John Kasich. (You can at least say this for Rubio: He won Jenna Jameson and Donnie Wahlberg‘s vote.)

But experts say it’s not necessarily the star’s popularity that counts.

“There are certain celebrities that have gravitas when it comes to their opinion,” David Schneiderman, co-owner of Seismic Productions and a prominent Clinton fundraiser, told TheWrap. “It really depends on the celebrity. It can’t just be someone with a pretty face. George Clooney, for example is a very thoughtful, politically-savvy actor.”

Other influential celebrities who can really bring in the crowds, according to experts, are Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Barbara Streisand, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and, perhaps the mother of all celebrity endorsements, Oprah Winfrey.

When the queen of talk rolled out the red carpet for then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007 at her 42-acre estate in Montecito, California, A-listers clamored to score tickets.

About 1,500 guests, including Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Halle Berry, attended the star-studded event, which raised several million dollars.

“It sold out in a matter of moments,” Perlman said of Winfrey’s fundraiser.

But Oprah’s endorsement did more than just raise a boatload of cash.

Craig Garthwaite, who co-wrote a study on celebrity endorsements in the 2008 elections, told OpenSecrets Blog that Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama also brought in 1 million votes in the 2008 Democratic primary. The endorsement was so pivotal, it became known as “The Oprah Effect.”

Fundraisers say the dream endorsements are those from artists who can appeal to a wide swath of donors, as in the case of Winfrey.

Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Brad and Angelina and Selena Gomez cut across all demos,” MarketShare founder Jon Vein told TheWrap.

Vein has hosted several glitzy events, including one for Obama’s 2007 election campaign featuring Macy Gray and Jamie Foxx. More recently, he held a fundraiser for Clinton on Feb. 22, co-hosted by Will Ferrell and his wife Viveca among others, though Vein made it clear that Ferrell was acting as a family friend — and Ferrell ended up canceling last minute.

Musicians and comedians are the Holy Grail of Hollywood fundraisers, especially if they’re willing to perform for the crowd.

Vein estimates that a high-power celebrity in the realm of Clooney or Jolie can result in a 20-30 percent jump in donations, depending on the size of the venue.

Of course, there are some risks that come with celebrity endorsements, a lesson Sanders learned recently after one of his celebrity backers, rapper Killer Mike, quoted activist Jane Elliott as having told him: “Michael, a uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.”

After a reporter tweeted the comment, the rapper was accused of sexism, which had the Sanders campaign spinning faster than a pack of Beverly Hills housewives at a midday SoulCycle class. “There can be a negative side to celebrity endorsements because you don’t have control over the celebrity and they have a very loud megaphone,” Vein explained.