The Dave Chappelle Strategy: Why Campaigns Still Crave Celebrities On The Trail

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Andrew Yang’s campaign is making the most of a high-profile celebrity endorsement: Dave Chappelle. He’s not only talking up Yang’s prospects, but he’s performing concerts for him in South Carolina and, the other day, even did a press briefing tied to one of the candidate’s campaign rallies.

“You hear people say stuff like ‘Make America Great Again.’ Well how about make America feel better again,” Chappelle told reporters. “And I think [Andrew Yang’s] platform handles a lot of the emotional content of what being an American is like.”

The perennial question – going back to the days when Will Rogers went out on the trail for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 – is whether it makes a difference. The perennial answer is that it depends on the celebrity and, more importantly, the candidate.

Twelve years ago, a group of economists did an extensive study of Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008, and concluded that she was responsible for boosting his candidacy by about 1 million votes in the primaries and caucuses.

The Oprah effect was more questionable in the most recent midterms. Winfrey again stepped into the political arena to campaign and even walk precincts for Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial race in Georgia. Abrams did not win.

“Unfortunately, she didn’t do the trick,” President Donald Trump said at a press conference the day after the election.

That’s actually open to debate, as it’s uncertain just what Winfrey’s impact was on Abrams’ prospects. Unlike the 2008 Oprah-Obama research, the studies that link the impact of celebrity to actual votes for a candidate are few and far between.

There have been many polls in which solid majorities of the public say that are not swayed to vote for a candidate because of a celebrity endorsement.

In 2016, David Jackson, professor at Bowling Green State University, reported on the results of a poll that he and Melissa Miller conducted showing that celebrity support would have little or no effect, but that tells only part of the story. As Jackson tells Deadline, “too often they are looking at pieces in isolation.”

Their research found that a celebrity could have a negative impact on a candidate overall, but be a positive for the campaign when it comes to reaching certain segments of voters. The often controversial and outlandish Ted Nugent, who endorsed Trump and campaigned for him in 2016, was a “drag overall,” but influential among the Tea Party set, Jackson and Miller found.

Campaigns also may have different reasons for deploying celebrity surrogates to the campaign trail. They can prove beneficial in fundraising help, organizing, get-out-the-vote efforts or merely to energize staff and volunteers, all of which are essential for the Iowa caucuses.

Campaigns also have to be careful and do their own kind of casting process in who and how they send on the trail, and they have to weigh “what they want to achieve” with an endorsement, Jackson says. He sees Yang, the young and hip outsider in the campaign, as a good match with Chappelle, whose iconoclastic humor put him on the map. At the very least, he’s given Yang an uptick in press coverage.

As the Iowa caucuses approach, it’s not just Yang who is deploying the boldfaced names, but candidates who are at or near the top of the polls.

Perhaps more than any other candidate, Bernie Sanders is deploying celebrity surrogates, who have been on the trail for him in Iowa as he stayed in Washington during the impeachment hearings. Michael Moore is serving as one of his surrogates through the Iowa caucuses, and Kendrick Sampson and Naomi Klein will be on the campaign trail for him. On Feb. 10, the night before the New Hampshire primary, the Strokes will hold a concert for Sanders in Durham, NH.

Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy will get some help from Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye, while Pete Buttigieg has appeared with Kevin Costner and Mandy Moore.

Still, the number of celebrity surrogates on the trail is a contrast to this point in 2016, when many more showbiz figures already had lined up behind Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

Adrienne Elrod, political strategist who was director of strategic communications and surrogates for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, says that “this time, a lot of celebrities are keeping their powder dry, seeing how the race plays out.” In other words, they want to line up with a candidate who has a realistic shot of winning.

Some publicists also say that social media has made clients think twice about publicly backing a candidate, mindful of the inevitable backlash. Trump, unlikely to capture many names from Hollywood’s A-list, is prone to single out celebrity detractors on Twitter or at a campaign rally. Taylor Swift’s publicist had just that concern before the singer jumped into the arena to endorse two Tennessee Democrats. That’s exactly what happened. After Swift went public with her picks in October, 2018, Trump responded, “Let’s say that I like Taylor’s music about 25% less now, OK?”

Moreover, no matter who the Democratic nominee is, the GOP will likely try to make a negative out of showbiz support, tarnishing Trump’s rival as a darling of the Hollywood elite.

In the last presidential cycle, Elrod says, Trump “was simply jealous of us.” She says his campaign tried to make Clinton’s Hollywood support a liability, by tying it to “his whole, ‘They are elitist and I am not,’ mantra. He seemed to make it work in certain places in the country at least.”

Campaigns do have to “make sure that the campaign is about the people and not the glitz and glam of the celebrities,” she says. But, she adds, “I think the benefits of having a vast celebrity network working for you far outweigh the cons.”

She sees an upside for Yang in having Chappelle out there for him at this point in the campaign.

“People love Dave Chappelle,” Elrod says. “I think anyone who can draw a crowd, especially in Iowa right now when people are ready to caucus, is a positive.”


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