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Politicians are nothing if not savvy marketers, and no modern election season is complete without celebrities lining up to endorse one side or the other. George Clooney's record- breaking fundraiser last week for President Barack Obama highlighted the value of having a famous name on your side. Even the venerable Betty White, who usually keeps her political preferences to herself, recently revealed her political preference (she's voting for Obama).
The question has always remained, however, whether having celebrity backers really helps politicians win elections. The answer is not so clear-cut, according to one political scientist.
"Celebrities are always getting involved in politics and no one ever studies them," said Anthony Nownes, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT). Although some academics may scoff at the importance of celebrity endorsements, Nownes argues that stars' political activity often makes news — and that means it has the opportunity to influence public opinion.
Nownes argues that celebrity endorsements – Oprah famously backed Obama in 2008 and comedian Jeff Foxworthy, rocker Ted Nugent and country singer Trace Adkins have said they back Mitt Romney – do influence the way people view political parties, but not always positively.
Nownes contends that celebrities who contribute to political campaigns can make a political party more or less likable, depending on what voters think of the celebrities in the first place.
To test the impact celebrities have on elections, Nownes quizzed more than 500 UT students about their reaction to the information that actress Jennifer Aniston has donated heavily to Democrats and quarterback Peyton Manning has donated to Republicans.
Nownes said he chose Manning because, as a former UT gridiron star, he tends to be very popular among Tennessee students. He chose Aniston because most students would know her, but their opinion of her wasn't so clear-cut.
"My results support the general notion that celebrity giving to political parties and their candidates affects people's views of the parties," Nownes said. However, people's views of celebrity endorsements tend to be based on how they felt about the celebrities in question.
In his test cases, Aniston's support hurt the Democrats, while Manning's support helped the Republicans.
"If we think of the political parties as 'brands,' these results suggest that information about which celebrities 'use' each brand can affect people's attitudes about the brands," Nownes said.
Further, he found, people sometimes change their opinions about celebrities after learning about their political leanings.
"Throwing their support behind a presidential candidate doesn't help the celebrities much," he said. "They don't get much positive from it, and they might get negative."
In this case, the data showed that people who are not particularly fond of Republicans were turned off by Manning's support for the Republicans and adjusted their opinions of him accordingly. Similarly, people who disliked the Democratic Party viewed Aniston more negatively after learning about her support for Democrats.
"If this study has a practical meaning," Nownes said. "Its advice for celebrities: keep a low profile."
His study is published in the current issue of the journal American Politics Research.