The Value of Endorsements, from Hollywood to the Pulpit

I recently heard that Chuck Norris can divide by zero, and that his house has no doors—only walls he walks through. If the hype is to be believed, Chuck Norris can do anything.

Except, apparently, get Mike Huckabee nominated as the Republican presidential candidate. Norris's celebrity endorsement of Huckabee earlier this year did nothing for the former Arkansas governor—though to be fair rocker/hunting enthusiast Ted Nugent's public support didn't help Huckabee either.

Politics is not just about the issues, leadership, or likability. It's also about endorsements: who's stumping for which candidate. It's the equivalent of looking at the back of a book to see who has provided glowing quotes for the book or author.

But not all endorsements are created equal. With actors and preachers and former political rivals all trying to sway the outcome this fall, the key distinction is who is doing the endorsing.

The support of former political rivals is very important; witness Hillary Clinton asking her flock to get behind Barack Obama. Politicians are expected to endorse each other. But what about actors, celebrities, and religious leaders?

Acting interested

Actors have long been politically active, sometimes notoriously so, as in the case of Jane Fonda's anti-war activism. More recently, Matt Damon, in a widely-seen YouTube interview, expressed his alarm at John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin.

Damon, who compared the idea of Palin being president to "a really bad Disney movie," asked, "I need to know—does she really think that dinosaurs were here on Earth 4,000 years ago?" (For the record, the answer to Damon's question is yes; according to the Los Angeles Times, Palin stated that she believes that dinosaurs and humans lived together on Earth about six thousand years ago.)

While many people (including, of course, the celebrities themselves) like to think that celebrity endorsements and criticisms influence legions of fans, the track record is far from impressive. Just because the public watches actors in films or listens to their music doesn’t necessarily mean that they will support whoever the celebrity likes. In 2003, America's then-reigning pop princess Britney Spears publically supported George W. Bush, yet her endorsement had no effect on his popularity.

Perhaps the most influential celebrity endorsement is that of Oprah Winfrey. After all, tomes featured on her book club enjoy a dramatic boost in sales. But there's a big difference between buying a book and voting based on who Oprah likes.

Celebs such as Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney have endorsed Barack Obama, while Sylvester Stallone and Robert Duvall are throwing their weight behind McCain.

While a celebrity may or may not be able to influence the vote, their ability to raise campaign funds is undeniable: Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel are playing at an upcoming Obama fundraiser, and tickets won't come cheap.

From the pulpit

Endorsements by religious leaders, on the other hand, are a whole different matter. The Republican party's ability to mobilize conservative Christian voters was important in electing George W. Bush.

Recently a group of ministers, organized by a conservative group, have challenged IRS restrictions and told their followers that the Bible endorses the positions and policies of Republican candidate John McCain.

Though the ministers have cast their grievance as a free speech issue, they are mistaken. Religious leaders across the country have the Constitutional right to endorse any political views and candidates they choose. Ministers, rabbis, and imams can tell their followers what party or candidate to vote for; the federal government is not preventing them from doing so. But if the ministers choose to do that, the law is that they must pay taxes like any other company, person or organization.

The tax exemption for churches is a special benefit provided to religious groups, and the federal government can stipulate conditions for that special benefit. Ministers are welcome to endorse candidates, as long as their church follows the law and pays their fair share of taxes.

In the end, after all the hype has faded, the race is there for the candidates to win or lose; celebrity endorsements and criticisms won't sway many voters one way or the other. Just ask Chuck Norris—if you can find him. I hear he's invisible.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about the media and pop culture in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website.