In Depth

Do big-name endorsements help or hinder Joe Biden’s US election campaign?

The Democrat has amassed an impressive list of backers - including the widow of the late-Republican John McCain

The widow of late US Republican senator John McCain has endorsed Joe Biden for president, adding her name to a long list of prominent GOP figures campaigning against Donald Trump.

Cindy McCain has made a string of media appearances to formally endorse the Democratic candidate, tweeting afterwards that her husband “lived by a code: country first”.

“We are Republicans, yes, but Americans foremost,” she added. “There’s only one candidate in this race who stands for our values as a nation, and that is Joe Biden.”

After years of animosity between John McCain and Trump, political commentators were not surprised that his widow threw her support behind Biden. But do big-name endorsements really sway public opinion?

Do celebrity endorsements help?

“Famous people have been throwing their celebrity behind presidential candidates for nearly a century,” the Los Angeles Times says, but research conducted on the effectiveness of big-name endorsements appears to show their power varies widely.

2012 study found that talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama shortly before the 2008 Democratic presidential primary “generated a statistically and qualitatively significant increase in the number of votes Obama received” when voting commenced.

The research said Winfrey’s endorsement “was responsible for approximately one million additional votes for Obama”, a sizeable boost in support by any measure.

But a 2007 study found that in the 2004 US election between Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry, “political advertising containing celebrity endorsers was generally not that influential for either party”.

While “overall respondents were somewhat positive about the use of celebrities to encourage voter turnout, they were not as receptive to celebrity’s attempts to sway voting toward (or against) a specific candidate”, the report said.

Biden has an impressive list of celebrity backers, ranging from A-list superstars to former president and close friend Obama. And the Democrat’s team will be hoping for some of that Winfrey-effect come November.

Who endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016?

There is little doubt that Clinton received more high-profile backing than Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Some of Clinton’s endorsers included basketball player LeBron James, comedian Amy Schumer, actress Meryl Streep, chat show host Ellen DeGeneres, and musicians John Legend and Beyonce. 

In contrast, Trump boasted a smaller set of public backers including NFL quarterback Tom Brady, actor Charlie Sheen, musician Kid Rock, boxer Mike Tyson and wrestling star Hulk Hogan.

But as we all know, Clinton’s plethora of superstar supporters were not enough to get her elected into the White House as the first female president.

That said, Clinton did win the popular vote with a lead of almost three million ballots, suggesting that winning the backing of household names does candidates no harm in terms of amassing public - if not the electoral college’s - support.

How can Trump use it to his advantage?

Trump snuck to victory in November 2016 despite endorsements having not aided his campaign.

This, according to Matthew Wood, Jack Corbett and Matthew Flinders in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, is the result of a recent “shift away from the glamour of the red carpet and film star friends”.

Instead, the trio suggest that politics has moved towards something “more akin to the medium of reality TV where an individual’s ability to appear ordinary, imperfect, ‘everyday’ and ‘normal’ is celebrated”. Fighting an election in the reality TV age would play well for the former host of The Apprentice.

The authors suggest that the shift is a result of an “anti-establishment” mood, in which voters are often “rejecting carefully orchestrated professional media performances in favour of a rawer and less predictable mode of engagement”. That all sounds familiar. 

And big-name backers coming out in support of Biden are giving Trump the means to stoke anti-establishment sentiment again.

After Biden won McCain’s support, Trump tweeted: “I hardly know Cindy McCain other than having put her on a Committee at her husband’s request.” Accusing Biden of being the late-McCain’s “lapdog”, Trump added: “Never a fan of John. Cindy can have Sleepy Joe!”


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