It is, of course, fitting that one of the central electoral conflicts of the moment is that between the newly professed politics of pop singer Taylor Swift and the more loosely constructed worldview of hip-hop artist Kanye West. One of the truisms of the moment is that everything old becomes new again, and so naturally the duo’s 2009 dispute over a music video has new echoes in 2018.

The short version of the story, which is the only version that deserves writing out, is that both musicians are now vocal about their positions on federal politics. West earlier this year tweeted his support for President Trump, at least in the abstract, following it up with a speech from the stage of “Saturday Night Live” last month in which he established his Trump support in the understandable context of contrarianism.

Swift’s political declaration was similarly on-brand. In a lengthy post on Instagram, she declared that she was no longer reluctant to share her political opinions and that, this year, those opinions demanded that she vocally support Democrat Phil Bredesen for the Tennessee Senate seat left vacant by the retirement of Sen. Bob Corker (R). The post was anchored with a moody photo of . . . Taylor Swift.

The responses to these divergent political decrees has largely been as you might expect. Charlie Kirk, head of a headline-vacuuming organization aimed at encouraging conservatism among young people, disparaged Swift on Twitter, declaring that her “career has never recovered since Kanye ended it” back in 2009. (Swift is No. 21 on Forbes’s list of the 100 highest-earning celebrities; West doesn’t appear, though his wife does.)

“Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson mocked West’s rant during this weekend’s show, mirroring Fox News’s Laura Ingraham’s response to LeBron James this year.

“Kanye is a genius but a musical genius,” Davidson said. “Joey Chestnut is a hot-dog-eating genius, but I don’t want to hear Joey Chestnut’s opinion about things that aren’t hot-dog-related.”

It’s often the case that political statements from celebrities are dismissed as grandstanding, hollow or pointless. Trump himself has repeatedly disparaged the celebrity endorsements enjoyed by his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, suggesting that even with Jay-Z and LeBron James boosting her candidacy, she still lost.

But in this case, the endorsement by Swift might actually move the needle — a little, a very little — but where it might matter.

The race Swift focused on was that Senate race between Bredesen and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R). Blackburn has a slight lead in polling, but the Tennessee race is one of the closest in the country.

SENATE GOVERNORS
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CA
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It’s the sort of race where a small turn of a dial can have an outsize effect.

In general, it’s hard to gauge the effect of a celebrity endorsement. It depends very much on the where, what and when. Studies have shown that a celebrity-backed push for voter registration can bolster that effort. A 2018 analysis by Valerie O’Regan and Stephen Stambough, professors at California State University at Fullerton, looked specifically at the role of celebrities in 2012 and 2016 among young people.

“Using celebrities to convey messages to the public is successful because people are more likely to listen to them than to others, even though the others may have more expertise,” the researchers concluded. “However, this is an analysis of young adults’ perceptions; we must be careful in generalizing these results to the general population.”

In 2012, the researchers found a gender difference, with women less likely to say that people were more open to messages from celebrities, but that difference had faded by 2016.

This question of age and gender is probably important. Swift’s audience is generally assumed to be mostly young women, however fairly. A 2010 “60 Minutes”-Vanity Fair poll found that Swift was the musician people ages 18 to 29 most would like to have dinner with. The other options were Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Susan Boyle (the most popular pick among those 65 and older) and Jay-Z, with “none of the above” responses included. Swift was the second-most-popular pick overall behind McCartney but nearly tied him among women (among men, McCartney got twice as much support) and in the South, probably given her roots in country music. She was also the most popular pick among Republicans, perhaps in part for the same reason.

That Swift’s endorsement was specific to Tennessee bolsters that point about the South. That she is more popular among younger people is probably more important. Midterm elections generally see much lower turnout among voters under age 30 than older voters, with voters older than 30 making up a disproportionate percentage of the electorate as a result. The oldest voters turn out more heavily in midterm election years than young people do in presidential years.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

A boost among those younger voters, however small, could be significant.

Clinton’s deployment of celebrities in 2016 had two goals: boost turnout among her supporters and inspire people to support her who might otherwise be skeptical. In the abstract, Swift’s endorsement would probably fall into the latter category, coupled here with boosting the name identity of someone many voters may not have heard much about.

Swift’s endorsement probably also has a slightly different effect: casting this race as so important that she broke her otherwise well-established political silence. Whether Swift campaigns for Bredesen remains to be seen, but the candidate can use her endorsement to target younger voters in a push to get them to turn out. That Swift’s endorsement was unusual probably plays a role here that affects the calculus.

Compare that with West’s statements about Trump. West is not shy about sharing his opinions on politics or otherwise; his comments about President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 vaulted him to a new tier of national prominence. West’s support of Trump has little to do with Trump’s politics and much more about Trump’s (and West’s) style. Trump likes to say that West has bolstered the president’s support among black voters, but there’s not really any evidence to that effect. Here’s Gallup polling on Trump’s approval rating by demographic before and after West came out in support in April.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

West isn’t asking anyone to really do anything. Swift is.

Will her endorsement hand Bredesen a victory in his Senate race? Probably not. But if, on Election Day, Tennessee sees a surge in young women who come to the polls and Bredesen enjoys a narrow victory, we might have seen an actual effect. We can let West finish his political argument, but Swift would have had one of the best endorsements of all time.