The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Taylor Swift, revered by young Americans, help lead Democrats out of the woods?

Taylor Swift arrives at a New York gala on May 2, 2016. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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“Youth vote” can seem almost a contradiction in terms given the tendency of young people to stay home on Election Day, perhaps more enthralled by social networking and celebrities like Taylor Swift than by elections and the fate of the republic.

The famously apolitical pop titan herself — revered by many young Americans — is trying to change that, testing whether the long-held assumption about the younger generation will collapse, as have so many others, from the aftershocks of the 2016 election.

Swift paired social media and social activism in a lengthy Instagram post on Sunday evening. One month before the midterm elections, she endorsed two Democrats and entreated her followers to register and show up to the polls. The influence of such celebrity endorsements has never been a sure thing. But Swift is aiming to call forth the untapped political power of millennials and Generation Z.

Young voters, or at least young Democrats, were listening.

“I was actually listening to Taylor Swift when you called,” Blake Kitterman, the vice president of the Tennessee Young Democrats, said in a telephone interview.

As he studied for his midterm exams at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the college junior was pumping himself up with “Reputation,” the singer’s sixth studio album and the fulfillment of her long journey from country melodies to contemporary pop.

“She’s a monumental influence with younger generations,” said Kitterman, 21. Especially as the #MeToo movement shines a light on sexual violence, Swift stands out as a public figure who has defended herself against harassment, he said. Last year, she won a case against a DJ who had groped her in 2013, taking the stand to describe in blunt terms how he had touched her without her consent. “She has spoken up when she needed to, and I do think she has that momentum needed to push millennial to the polls.”

Taylor Swift's groping lawsuit was one of the lesser explored cases of sexual harassment and assault this year. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Lavanya Ramanathan/The Washington Post, Photo: Jeff Kandyba/The Washington Post)

Kitterman said Swift’s political message comes at a “watershed moment” — as young people begin to discover “the power of their vote.” The 2016 election, he said, was a “wake-up call” about the consequences of apathy. Millennials are beginning to realize that they could form a major voting bloc if they only bothered to turn out, he said.

The 28-year-old pop star, meanwhile, has come to a realization of her own. “In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now,” she wrote.

It was the millennial version of a newspaper op-ed, delivering yet another piece of evidence that neutrality is impossible in these charged times. Emoji took the place of the usual political slogans. A black-and-white Polaroid was swapped in for a standard headshot. The singer didn’t don a pantsuit but rather what looks like a flannel shirt, worthy of her country roots. By early Monday, more than a million Instagram users had registered their approval. Now, the question is whether her message will put wind in Democratic sails when the party needs it most.

Swift, who is registered to vote in Tennessee, explained why she planned to support Democrats in two national races: Phil Bredesen, a former governor and candidate for Senate, and Rep. Jim Cooper. In harsh terms, she condemned Bredesen’s opponent, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who Swift said was out of step with “MY Tennessee values” on gender equality and gay rights. Recent polling has shown the eight-term congresswoman with a slight lead in a state that last elected a Democratic senator, Al Gore, in 1990.

Bredesen was quick to trumpet Swift’s endorsement.

Conservative pundits brushed off the star’s intervention. “Zzzzzzzzz,” Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, wrote on Twitter.

Swift’s appeal extended beyond the contests in her adopted home state. She implored young people, who overwhelmingly favor Democrats yet are among the least likely to turn out to the polls, to register to vote.

“So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do,” she wrote on Instagram, even specifying that Tuesday is the last day to register in Tennessee.

The issue of turnout is particularly notable in Tennessee, ranked second to last in the nation in that field, just ahead of Texas, according to a 2016 Pew study.

But the singer’s appeal is already resonating beyond Tennessee.

Young Democrats in other states told The Washington Post late Sunday and early Monday they think Swift’s views carry weight, particularly with the cohort of millennial and postmillennial Americans who have clear political proclivities but have long shied away from the electoral process.

“She has over 100 million followers on Instagram and many of them are, I’d guess, first-time voters,” said Lynnette Hull, president of the Nevada Young Democrats and a student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

The megastar’s potential sway comes not just from the fact that many of her fans, who were preteens when she became a global sensation, are now of voting age. The fact that she has not previously spoken out makes her words all the more powerful, Hull said, because it reveals the stakes of the political contest gripping the nation.

By characterizing the midterms as “an overall struggle for protecting human rights and dignity” rather than a partisan grudge match, Swift is speaking effectively to young people who have less fealty to the party structure, said William Fotter, the vice president of the University of Arizona Democrats. “Young people are less party-oriented and more issue-oriented,” said the 21-year-old political science and international relations major.

If the Democrats can find someone to help fire up millennials, Fotter said, “it could make a huge difference.”

The numbers explain why. Millennials represent the most liberal and Democratic adult generation, according to Pew. In an early analysis of midterm voting preferences, 62 percent of registered millennials said they wanted a Democratic candidate for Congress to win in their district. Only 27 percent of millennials approve of President Trump’s job performance, compared to 64 percent in former president Barack Obama’s first year in the White House.

But these stark preferences tend not to be reflected at the polls. Generation X, millennials and the postmillennial generation (born 1997 and after) comprise a majority of voting-eligible adults, according to Pew. But if history is any guide, they won’t cast a majority of votes in November. In the past four midterm elections, for example, millennials between the ages of 18 and 24 voted at a rate of just 20 percent, the Pew data shows.

Fotter said the explanation lies not in the characterization of young people as a “self-absorbed, selfie-obsessed generation” but rather in the pervasive belief that political participation has no meaningful impact. That, he said, is where Swift’s message could change minds. In the process, he added, young people could help redeem social media as a tool of political engagement in a moment of skepticism about foreign interference and the spread of false news.

“If Taylor Swift is able to convince millennials that their votes matter, that could make a huge difference,” he said.

Experts said there was reason to be skeptical.

Measuring the impact of individual endorsements on turnout and candidate support can be difficult, said Sarah Anzia, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. There is some evidence that Obama benefited specifically from Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement in the 2008 Democratic primary, she said. But in a general election, it’s unlikely that young Republicans would switch sides because of a celebrity endorsement.

Still, the low turnout rate among young voters suggests there is potential for mobilization, she said. “When the voter turnout of a particular group or in particular kinds of elections tends to be very low,” Anzia said, “a little push might actually make a bit of a difference.”

Kitterman, the student in Chattanooga, said the impact could be greater because of the demographics of Swift’s fan base. Critics previously speculated that her silence stemmed from her reluctance to alienate red-state fans. Some even suggested she had a kinship with the 45th president based on her interest in score-settling — a dominant theme of some of her most popular songs — and her alt-right following.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union scolded her for threatening to sue a California blogger who accused the singer of being associated with white supremacy. And in an editorial, the Guardian called her an “envoy for Trump’s values.”

For these reasons, Kitterman said, Swift is difficult to dismiss as an elite celebrity blindly loyal to the Democrats. Her country aesthetic, as well as her prior reluctance to wage political battle, set her apart.

“Her reach is a lot broader than many other famous people,” said Kitterman, who has lived his whole life in Tennessee. “She embodies country values, and she’s saying, ‘Tennessee is not a state of hate. It’s a state of love.’”

For others, Swift’s decision to get political was already proof of the power of young people.

“I think her endorsement is less about motivating potential young voters to vote and more about young voters motivating her to speak up,” said Jen Ramos, the communications director for the Texas Young Democrats. “She’s seen, like the rest of us, how important these decisions are to communities who’ve been begging for people of privilege to do the right thing.”

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