Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Nine months from election day, Joe Biden’s re-election campaign must be getting increasingly exasperated. The US economy’s rebound from the pandemic is the envy of the world, but consumers remain gloomy. Job numbers are up and inflation is down, but the president has received scant credit. Attempts to take a firm line with Israel, meanwhile, have done nothing to stem heavy criticism from young voters. It can come as no surprise that Donald Trump leads in the latest polls of all key battleground states.
With age-old strategies thus far failing to deliver, and an increasing sense in some quarters that it may be “vibes” as much as policy that will swing the outcome this year, the campaign has set its sights on another way to win votes: an endorsement by global pop megastar Taylor Swift.
The case for courting Swift is obvious. A figure of enormous cultural significance who has endorsed Democratic candidates before, the 34-year-old is coming off the back of a tour so huge that it had a measurable impact on the US economy. In recent months, her romance with one of the star players in next weekend’s Super Bowl has helped ensure that her presence is now felt in almost every corner of American culture.
So, would Swift’s endorsement boost Biden?
I’ll start with the optimistic case. The artist’s carefully crafted all-American image has enormously broad appeal. According to data from a Morning Consult poll last year, her fan base may skew under-40 but it spans Democrats and Republicans, high and low earners, people of all ethnicities, and is concentrated in the suburbs where US elections are now won and lost. The fact that Swift launched her career from the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, and started out in country music, has given her lasting popularity in red America.
And in the US — which is unlike steeply age-polarised Britain — about 40 per cent of under-40s backed Trump in 2020, meaning there is a sizeable pool of persuadable Swifties for Democrats to pursue.
But what does history tell us about what actually happens when celebrities endorse candidates in America?
A 2008 study of the impact of Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries found that her backing provided an estimated 1mn extra votes, enough to propel him past Hillary Clinton.
A single party primary, however, is a very different beast from a bitterly contested election with a deeply divided electorate, and other studies are less optimistic about how endorsements play out in these conditions.
An analysis by David Jackson, professor of political science at Bowling Green State University, found that an endorsement by a major celebrity could even have polarising impacts. Jackson discovered that while Democrats tended to say an endorsement of a presidential candidate by a liberal celebrity would increase their support for the candidate, that was more than offset by Republicans claiming it would put them off. And endorsements of all kinds tend to repel more moderates than they attract.
The Biden campaign will be hoping it can escape those trade-offs owing to Swift’s bipartisan appeal, but that may be beginning to change thanks to what we might call “the Bud Light effect”.
Last year, Republican campaigners successfully turned the light beer from a hugely popular refreshment into a toxic brand, as they railed against an advertising campaign featuring a prominent transgender influencer.
Similar efforts are now being made to suggest Swift is part of a plot to keep Biden in the White House, and the campaign appears to be working, with YouGov finding in December that Trump 2020 voters viewed her negatively, whereas in October they gave her heavily favourable ratings. If Swift is seen as firmly on one side of the culture war, her utility as a vote-winner will be diminished and she may even tip some the other way.
But demonising Swift is also a risky strategy for the Republicans, whose repeated efforts to whip up anger around popular and mainstream celebrities and products risk pushing moderate voters away from Trump. As Swift sings in her hit 2022 single, “Karma’s a relaxing thought.”
Ultimately, I suspect this whole chapter will generate far more noise than votes. In a lengthy and fiercely fought contest where both sides deploy every bit of political machinery available to them, Swift’s role in the election is unlikely to ascend beyond that of a featured artist.