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The politics of pop culture in presidential campaigns

| Judy Berthiaume

What do Katy Perry, Mike Tyson, Kid Rock, George Clooney and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have in common?

All are using their celebrity power to try to help influence the 2016 presidential election, says a political scientist who studies the ways pop culture influences American politics.

“Politics and popular culture have intersected for as long as there has been popular culture,” says Dr. Eric Kasper, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “Politicians have long made use of popular culture, particularly as they have tried to attach themselves to celebrities and their popularity.”

Kasper is co-author of “Don't Stop Thinking About the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns,” a book that examines how politics and pop culture intertwine.

As was the case in other recent presidential elections, the 2016 presidential candidates are making use of popular advertising strategies, producing catchy commercials, putting out theme songs and seeking celebrity endorsements, Kasper says, noting that candidates from both major parties are engaging in these tactics.

“Since it is relatively early in the election cycle, we are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of celebrity involvement,” Kasper says. “That having been said, many celebrities have already publicly announced support for candidates. This list is already quite long.”

For example, Katy Perry and George Clooney are among the big names offering their support to Hillary Clinton, while Mike Tyson and Ted Nugent have endorsed Donald Trump. Kid Rock says he’s a Ben Carson fan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is attaching his name to Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

“When it comes to music and Hollywood celebrities, more of them tend to be politically liberal, so it is no surprise that more of them are supportive of the Democratic Party,” Kasper says. “To be sure, there are conservative television and film actors and there are conservative musical artists — particularly within the country genre — who also support Republican candidates, but on the whole, more support from these celebrities tends to go the Democrats. In the current election cycle, the overwhelming majority of celebrity endorsements are currently going to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.”

So what does a celebrity endorsement do for a presidential candidate?

Directly, not a lot.

But indirectly, quite a bit.

“It is unlikely that celebrity endorsements directly sway more than a miniscule percentage of voters,” Kasper says. “Most voters cast their ballots primarily for other reasons, including the candidates’ personalities, policy stances and party affiliations.”

Still, the celebrity endorsements matter, Kasper says.

“Just like political yard signs probably don’t sway a lot of voters in an election, every campaign creates and distributes those yard signs because not doing so would raise questions about the legitimacy and health of the campaign,” Kasper says. “Similarly, celebrity endorsements are a signal that a candidate has support among one class of persons known to the public, just like endorsements by other politicians is a symbol of a candidate’s overall support.”

Having celebrities appear at candidate rallies can help draw bigger crowds to those rallies, which makes the candidate appear to have a great deal of support, Kasper says.

Celebrity appearances also can bring people to the rallies who otherwise would not go, Kasper says. And once they are there, campaign staff have opportunities to sign them up to volunteer to knock on doors, make phone calls and get out the vote, he says.

Finally, because celebrities usually have significant personal wealth and know others who do as well, they can help candidates with campaign finance, Kasper says.

Of course, there also can be a downside to attracting the attention of a celebrity.

More and more artists are objecting to candidates whom they do not support using their work, particularly songs that a campaign might use to try to reinforce its messages, Kasper says. And an artist publicly objecting to the use of their song can have a negative effect on the candidate’s campaign, he says.

“Since the purpose of using a song is typically to help reinforce the campaign’s message, an objection by a musical artist for alleged copyright infringement or improper implied endorsement can garble that message in a negative way,” Kasper says. “If a candidate has to answer press inquiries about a musical artist’s complaint, it usually is not a good thing, as it takes the candidate off message and makes the candidate appear to be sloppy.”

In a small number of cases, musical artists have threatened, or actually pursued, legal action against candidates for using their music, which has dragged out the negative publicity even more, Kasper says. These kinds of objections happen more frequently now because of the increased use of popular music in presidential campaigns and because technology makes it easy to play prerecorded music at campaign rallies, Kasper says.

While the use of popular music at presidential campaign events may be a newer phenomenon, pop culture and politics always have been intertwined, Kasper says.

“Popular culture has long expressed political ideas and tried to persuade people, and you can see this in music, television programs, films, popular books and advertising for a long time,” Kasper says. “These media are often not just telling an interesting story — they are also often promoting the political or ideological beliefs of their authors, composers, directors, actors and others.“

Not surprisingly, every time a new technology arises, it changes how popular culture affects politics and, in particular, elections, says Kasper.

“Just like the emergence of radio, television and the Internet changed the way that Madison Avenue markets products to American consumers, so too have these technologies influenced the interaction between popular culture and politics,” Kasper says. “For instance, the emergence of radio helped to create national — as opposed to regional or local — celebrities. Presidential candidates and other politicians then sought the endorsements of those celebrities.”

As television emerged, presidential candidates started using this medium to communicate with voters as well, including eventually appearing on more than just traditional news programs, Kasper says, noting that politicians now often are guests on late-night talk shows and comedy and variety programs.

“They see the audience of viewers for these shows as potential voters who can learn something different and more appealing about them in these different formats,” Kasper says of the political strategy behind the appearances on these shows. “These appearances help expose candidates to new audiences, show a side of the candidates that is often not apparent during other campaign events and allow them free media time without a serious threat of any hardball-style questions.”

Still another way popular culture intersects with political campaigns is through the use of slogans, Kasper says. Candidates have long used slogans as a way to boil down their campaign to a simple, easily understood message, much like advertisers do for products, he says.

For instance, the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign informally adopted the slogan, it’s “the economy, stupid,” as a way to keep reminding the campaign staff and the voters about the recession taking place at the time, Kasper says.

“For even more interconnectedness between advertising slogans and campaigning, one can look to Walter Mondale in 1984, who during a primary debate referred to what he saw as the vacuous ideas of opponent Gary Hart by repeating a popular Wendy’s hamburger advertising line at the time, ‘Where’s the Beef?’” Kasper says. “Ronald Reagan, who was a celebrity actor long before he was a politician, was an expert at using these types of one-liners during debates in a way similar to how a master thespian would captivate an audience by uttering a key line at the right moment.”

Kasper first became interested in how pop culture and politics intersect when he was teaching at UW-Barron County in Rice Lake. While there, Kasper and Benjamin Schoening, who then was on the music faculty at the college, team-taught a class on American politics and music, examining various themes, including the use of music by politicians when campaigning for office.

Their work eventually led them to writing a conference paper on presidential candidates’ music selection, which was the starting point for a book they co-authored, titled “Don't Stop Thinking About the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns.”

“We trace the history and evolution of campaign songs and candidates’ use of musicians throughout American history,” Kasper says of the book. “Such music dates back to the candidacy of George Washington, but it didn’t become a staple in campaigns until the election of 1840.”

By 1840, changes in voter qualifications necessitated that campaigns reach out to an electorate that included more people who had no formal education and were often illiterate, Kasper says.

“Music became an important way to get campaign messages to this new class of voters, and the trend of using music has continued to flourish ever since,” Kasper says. “Throughout American electoral history, the use of campaign music has changed in reaction to extensions of the right to vote, when the electorate has expanded based on race, gender and age.”

The use of music also changed with the emergence of new communications technologies, Kasper says, adding that changes in copyright laws have had an impact as well.

You can reach Dr. Eric Kasper at kasperet@uwec.edu or 715-836-4802.