It is not uncommon to see celebrities wade into presidential elections. In 2016, both the Republican and Democratic nominees had surrogates from the entertainment industry stumping for them at rallies, on cable news and on the trail.
But there’s a risk to latching your candidacy onto individuals known more for their ability to generate a following than their grasp of policy.
President Trump discovered that this week.
Perhaps no other demographic group gives Trump lower approval ratings than black voters. Support for the president from black Americans was already low before Trump called NFL players protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the anthem “sons of bitches” and called the white supremacists marching to preserve memorials honoring Confederate soldiers who fought to keep black people enslaved “very fine people.”
But black Americans' continued disinterest in the GOP appears to have perplexed Trump, who despite losing the black vote in 2016 won the election, in part, by playing into the fears of some white Americans who were culturally anxious about what a diversifying America would look like.
But with no black senior staffers in the White House and few pro-Trump black advocates on cable news, it’s fair to guess that the president’s grasp of the black electorate heading into the midterms isn’t strong, or a priority. Trump, a big fan of both social media and entertainers, appears to have put some of his black-voter-outreach hopes into hip-hop artist Kanye West, whose tweets in support of Trump and rant in the White House last month have appeared to do very little to draw more black voters to the GOP.
But this week, West, feeling used by black conservatives, chose to distance himself from politics, a moment that Candace Owens, a black conservative, compared to a bullet piercing her heart.
A politician genuinely interested in addressing black voters' concerns — including those that they have with the Trump administration — would not have leaned so heavily on the popularity of a rapper to lure black voters, a large number of whom are women over 50.
And perhaps that is what Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, is hoping to tap into. Abrams was joined by arguably one of the entertainment industry’s most influential stars: Oprah Winfrey.
The former talk show host is, in part, credited with giving Barack Obama’s candidacy a boost when she came out and endorsed the former Illinois lawmaker in his 2008 run for president. Winfrey, who backed Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential pursuits in 2016, is often floated as a potential contender for 2020, although she has repeatedly expressed disinterest in the position.
Winfrey is nowhere near as polarizing as West, who managed to offend President George W. Bush when he accused him of not caring about black people, as well as Obama, who called him a “jackass” after West stole a moment from pop star Taylor Swift. Speaking of Swift, the singer notably launched her first big political advocacy effort this year by backing the Democrat in Tennessee’s Senate race, the effectiveness of which is debatable, however, in a very red state.
While associating with a celebrity could be off-putting to some in traditionally conservative Georgia, Abrams will probably be unscathed if she is not centering part of her voter outreach efforts on an individual’s fame. Winfrey made a point to emphasize that she was in town not to talk about her -- or her political ambitions, but to discuss Abrams.
Star power almost by definition can be enticing. But it often seems like it is more alluring to candidates than actual voters. It’s a fair guess that most Americans engaged enough to turn out for the midterm elections aren’t looking to Hollywood to shape their public policy views.