Three things Taylor Swift can teach us about the US elections and democracy

Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society Andrea Römmele breaks down how celebrities influence election campaigns.

One of the hotly debated questions during the recent Super Bowl was whether popstar Taylor Swift would use the football game to comment on the US presidential election and tell her fans to vote for US President Joe Biden. Spoiler alert: so far, she hasn't. But can a celebrity like Swift influence the outcome of the presidential election? “Yes, she can,” says Hertie School Dean of Executive Education Andrea Römmele. The Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society gives three reasons why. 

No. 1: Celebrities are opinion leaders

“Research tells us that it’s personal contacts, particularly through opinion leaders, that influence our decisions. These opinion leaders are people we trust – often friends, colleagues or famous personalities such as film and music stars,” Römmele says. Looking at social media, the opinion leaders of the online world are YouTubers and TikTokers, along with comedians, actors and singers. All of them play a central role in their social networks, she explains. “They have a huge number of followers, reach into diverse networks, have a high level of communication skills, and are seen as credible by their audience.” Römmele stresses that influencers provide a feeling of being someone followers know personally, and they engage in a close dialogue with them.

No. 2: Celebrities have long-influenced US election campaigns

“Celebrity endorsements have always been an important part of the campaign strategy in US elections,” Römmele points out. Examples include TV presenter Oprah Winfrey publicly endorsing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, and entertainer Frank Sinatra campaigning for Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the most interesting endorsements, according to the communications expert, was that of former Republican President George W. Bush for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.

No. 3: Celebrities mobilise at the polls

Even though Swift has not yet publicly spoken out in favour of the Democrats and Joe Biden in the current US election campaign, Römmele thinks it is only a matter of time. Most likely, Swift will at least indirectly give her fans a voting recommendation, she assumes – with far-reaching consequences. “Over 50 per cent of Americans say they are Taylor Swift fans. And according to a survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, 18 per cent of all US voters consider it somewhat or very likely that they will vote for a candidate if he or she is publicly supported by Swift.”

Conclusion: Celebrities – a threat to democracy?

All’s well then as long as celebrities speak out against anti-democratic, racist or otherwise problematic candidates? “Not at all,” says Römmele. “In the short term, celebrity endorsements such as Swift’s may bring votes for Biden, and that’s a good thing. But this mobilisation isn’t desirable or sustainable for democracy in the long run,” she comments. “Swift should call on people to engage with politics, take a closer look, and then decide who they will vote for. That’s what democracy is about!”

  • Andrea Römmele, Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society

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