Newsletter: Do celebrity political endorsements matter?

Warren, Biden, and Trump
(Times illustration. Source photos via Associated Press and Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Nov. 7, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Famous people have been throwing their celebrity behind presidential candidates for nearly a century.

Many date the first noteworthy celebrity presidential endorsement to September 1928, when baseball legend Babe Ruth refused to pose for a photograph with then Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover, saying “I’m for Al Smith.” New York Gov. Al Smith was the Democratic nominee, and if you don’t recognize his name, it’s because he didn’t win.

We’re still early in the 2020 presidential election cycle, and most celebrities have yet to formally endorse a candidate, but they have been opening their wallets — hosting fundraisers, writing checks and eating stale canapes at multimillion-dollar homes, all in the name of democracy. So who’s winning the Hollywood primary thus far?


Our data team pored over more than 15,000 entertainment industry political contributions to create a database that tracks which celebrities are supporting which POTUS contenders. Using that data, they also ranked the candidates by the star power they’ve amassed. (Quite a few celebrities have given to more than one candidate, which is noted in the database.)

[See the database: “2020 election celebrity endorsements, a guide from Sanders to Warren” in the Los Angeles Times]

Despite tanking in the polls, home state Sen. Kamala Harris remains the clear Hollywood favorite, with more star-studded contributions than any other candidate.

We hear a lot of hand-wringing about celebrity endorsements, but do they actually matter?

Well, not all celebrities are equal. The importance of the endorsement depends heavily on the celebrities themselves, and their relationship with their fans.

“The entertainment world is increasingly fragmented and people who can be really, really famous to some people can be utterly unknown to others,” said David Jackson, a professor of political science at Bowling Green State University whose research focuses on the links between young people’s entertainment and political preferences. “You have to first clear that threshold of knowing who the person is for them to have any influence.”

In his view, there are three issues that really matter when it comes to celebrity endorsements: familiarity, likability and credibility.


Speaking on the phone from his office in Ohio, the professor brought up another interesting concept that I’d never encountered before: the idea that a celebrity endorsement can serve as a kind of shortcut for a busy person to come to a decision on a complicated topic.

“In public opinion, we talk about the concept of heuristic devices, which are just shortcuts that people take to get to a position on something that they haven’t necessarily thought a ton about,” he explained.

Partisanship and ideology have historically served as those kind of shortcuts for many. Imagine a voter who had previously voted along party lines for either Democratic or Republican candidates. They might take a look at an upcoming ballot race and think to themselves, I voted for the Republican before. I don’t have time to do a bunch of research about this particular election, so I’m just going to vote for the Republican again.

“Well, celebrities, I think, are increasingly playing that sort of role,” Jackson said.

So, how does all of this play out along party lines? Celebrity endorsements have typically run far more blue than red, and the Republican Party “traditionally has stood against the idea of celebrities being involved in politics because the celebrities overwhelmingly came out on the liberal and Democratic side,” Jackson explained.

But the ascent of Donald Trump, a celebrity who had never previously held elected office, may have an unlikely effect on that celebrity endorsement calculus.

Valerie O’Regan, a political science professor at CSU Fullerton who also studies the influence of celebrities on politics, recently completed research on the “Trump effect” during the 2016 presidential election. “Republican voters, who usually are more critical of celebrity endorsements, were more likely to listen to celebrity endorsements during the 2016 election,” she said.


And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


There’s still no definitive verdict in San Francisco’s nail-biter district attorney race, but interim Dist. Atty. Suzy Loftus extended her lead over public defender Chesa Boudin to 2,205 votes on Wednesday. Votes are still being counted in the first open election for San Francisco district attorney in more than a century. San Francisco Chronicle

How the Google walkout transformed tech workers into activists: A little over a year ago, Google employees in Los Angeles walked out in protest of sexual misconduct at the company, joining some 20,000 Google workers around the world. A year later, the legacy of the walkout has been far-reaching and complex. Although most of the protesters’ demands remain unmet, their efforts have given rise to a network of worker-led movements inside Google and in the broader tech industry, marking a new era of tech companies being challenged by their own employees. Los Angeles Times

See also: Here’s what the Google protesters demanded, and what they actually got. Los Angeles Times



Just one day after laying off nearly six dozen employees who were attempting to unionize, the Marciano Art Foundation has announced that it has “no present plans to reopen.” The museum’s closure marks a surprising conclusion to a chain of events that have occurred at breakneck speed. Los Angeles Times

Pregnant and homeless in Los Angeles: A look at the deep challenges faced by thousands of women, and some of the options for support. Los Angeleno

The former head of the L.A.-based anti-poverty nonprofit Youth Policy Institute improperly used the organization’s funds to pay the property taxes on his house, buy furniture for his home office and make national political donations, the group alleged in court documents filed this week. Los Angeles Times

Singer and alleged domestic abuser Chris Brown’s decision to hold a backyard yard sale created some chaos in Tarzana. The yard sale, which was advertised on social media, drew hundreds to the neighborhood, as fans lined up for hours and an LAPD helicopter circled overhead. Los Angeles Daily News

USC has tapped Mike Bohn to lead its athletic department. Bohn will be the first outsider in a quarter-century to hold the position. Los Angeles Times

The store closing sale at Barney’s New York in Beverly Hills is technically underway, but probably not worth going to yet. (The opening round of discounts ranges from 5% to 10%.) Los Angeles Times


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The roadside killing of nine U.S. citizens in northern Mexico has brought renewed attention to the scattered communities of Mormons who settled in the country more than a century ago to escape persecution. Los Angeles Times

San Diego hired the first immigrant affairs manager in city history. Rita Fernandez will be responsible for making San Diego more welcoming to immigrants, refugees and new citizens. San Diego Union-Tribune


The Democratic National Committee has yanked its Dec. 19 presidential primary debate from UCLA in solidarity with labor unions that are engaged in disputes with the university. Los Angeles Times


The co-founder of the local Indivisible chapter has entered the race for Modesto mayor. The election is in November 2020. Modesto Bee


U.S. prosecutors say the Saudi government recruited two Twitter employees to get the personal account information of the Saudi government’s critics. Associated Press


It’s not your imagination, California fires are getting worse. Our data team mapped every wine country wildfire since 1950, when the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection began reliably tracking the size and spread of fires. They found that the blazes are larger and more destructive than ever. Los Angeles Times

An extreme storm could overwhelm a Southern California dam and flood thousands. Federal engineers found that a dam protecting the high desert communities of Victorville, Hesperia, Apple Valley and Barstow falls short of national safety standards and could erode and collapse in an extreme flood, inundating thousands of people. Los Angeles Times


Can the long-lost abalone make a comeback in California? Once upon a time, the California coast had the greatest number of abalone species in the world. Until we loved them to death. Los Angeles Times

Heather Burdick dives off the Palos Verdes coast to check on hundreds of red abalone that her team had put in the ocean.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)


Uber’s rough debut on public markets continued Wednesday as the company’s lockup period ended with a record low stock price and protests. Los Angeles Times

Airbnb will implement a sweeping verification of all 7 million of its listings after a Halloween night shooting at an Orinda rental house left five people dead. East Bay Times

San Francisco’s Hayes Valley banned chain stores. Or at least they thought they did — but plenty of “formula retail” has been able to wiggle through the restrictions. San Francisco Chronicle


Sacramento’s streetcar plan is dead. Should a light rail line over Tower Bridge replace it? Sacramento Bee

Highway 1 traffic in Big Sur is a mess. Here’s how Caltrans is planning to fix it. San Luis Obispo Tribune

There were already hundreds of operational wineries in Napa when Prohibition hit in 1920. A few survived the dry years selling religious wine or grapes, but most were abandoned. Decades later, as Napa once again became wine country, most of those abandoned ghost wineries were restored by newcomers. But this two-acre property, which is now on the market, is believed to be the last unrestored ghost winery in the region. Napa Valley Register


Los Angeles: sunny, 77. San Diego: sunny, 71. San Francisco: partly sunny, 65. San Jose: sunny, 75. Sacramento: sunny, 79. More weather is here.



Today’s California memory comes from Stassia Samuels:

“In the Valley in the late ‘60s there was a declining kiddie ride place called Uncle Ben’s. After my folks split up, my dad would take me there to ride those rusty old airplanes that you could make go up and down with a joystick, or the race cars. The pure joy of spending a warm Saturday afternoon with dad just flying in those circles. Until one day we found a ‘closed for renovations’ sign on the gate. Fifty years later, dad and I have finally given up on those renovations.... But we still remember our joyful afternoons there together.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.