By Stephen Kent
There’s a first time for everything, and for Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson, that would be a presidential endorsement. You’d think it would take a really exceptional candidate to drag the self-proclaimed independent out of his apolitical status and into the 2020 fray. But you’d be wrong because The Rock is putting his pristine reputation on the line for none other than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, with an Instagram post that racked up 3 million views in just a matter of hours.
Do these kinds of celebrity endorsements end up making any significant difference for the politician receiving them?
We could start by asking Hillary Clinton. Public support and concerts from Bruce Springsteen, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, John Legend, Jay-Z, and Beyonce didn’t make Clinton the 45th president. It’s worth noting that Clinton roundly won the popular vote, but the keys to the kingdom are still about where you win, not how many extra blue votes you can run up in New Jersey with Springsteen fans. This is why the selection and deployment of celebrity has to be done carefully because what little we know about how celebrities affect elections is that they can counteract the phenomenon of “negative polarization.”
Negative polarization, in short, is when voters are acting against one candidate more than they are acting affirmatively for another. When pundits say that Donald Trump won in 2016 because of how badly key blocks of voters loathed Clinton, they are describing this kind of negative polarization in voter behavior. David Jackson of Bowling Green State University ran a survey in 2015 of 804 likely voters in Ohio, asking participants if “a particular endorsement would make the voter more or less likely to support a 2016 candidate, or if it would have no effect on their vote.”
Maybe it’s the political independent in me lashing out, but I read this prompt with intense skepticism. It basically relies on people admitting in a survey that they are followers, not leaders, the influenced instead of the influencer. While we know everyday people do have a tendency to outsource their political thinking to the influencer class, it’s not something I often hear people plainly admit to. Who would feel good about that?
To the participants’ credit, the finding here was that celebrity endorsements had a net negative impact on support for a candidate. The only scenario in which there was a net positive effect was if the respondents were already predisposed to favor that celebrity based on key demographics such as location, race, income, and consumer habits.
In other words, the endorsement of Beyonce doesn’t mean anything to a non-Beyonce fan. A white, Christian mother of four whose husband plays in a country band on the weekends in deep-red Warren County, Ohio, is not likely to take a Beyonce endorsement of Clinton seriously. In fact, it might make her angry. The effect of a celebrity endorsement outside of that celebrity’s key fan base stirs resentment and generates the kind of anti-elitist sentiment you so often see Trump channel for his most loyal voters.
“Those people hate you.”
“Those Hollywood snobs think you can’t decide for yourself who to vote for.”
What makes celebrity endorsements so dubious is that they have to be a “unicorn” in terms of their public appeal. The findings of the Bowling Green survey showed that a celebrity has to be seen as credible, well-liked, and appeal to a broad range of audiences in order to net more persuaded voters than they push away. Take Clinton’s sit-down with HBO star Lena Dunham, or even Joe Biden’s embarrassing recent interview with Cardi B. Do these pairings assuage the concerns of the fence-sitters or affirm their skepticism? Almost certainly the latter.
All of this being said, what The Rock is cooking with this endorsement of Biden-Harris might be in the category of exceptional for a celebrity nod. He’s a multigenerational superstar with vast film credits, ranging from Fast & Furious and Skyscraper to the family-friendly Jumanji, and going all the way back to his days in Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain or recently Moana. Layer his nearly 50 major films since the start of the 2000s with the demographic appeal of his wrestling career, plus a reputation for keeping his powder dry on politics, and you could have an effective endorsement here.
The Rock’s time spent in the WWE matters too. A study by AT&T in 2017 revealed that just on YouTube, WWE had the most popular channel in five states: Kentucky, Alabama, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and South Carolina. These places aren’t bastions of progressivism, and that matters if you’re Biden and trying to remind people that they didn’t really hate “Uncle Joe” all that much.
Celebrity endorsements aren’t the whole ballgame, and, in many cases, they can really do damage to a candidate. But the sincere and heartfelt backing of a broadly liked, down-to-earth, apolitical, and awesome figure like The Rock isn’t going to produce the kind of knee-jerk backlash that Cyrus or Alyssa Milano invite. For once, this celebrity endorsement might actually help Biden.