Psychology Explains How Taylor Swift Caused a Surge in US Vote Registration
It's all about credibility.
Taylor Swift single-handedly caused voter registration to surge when she broke her lengthy political silence on Sunday to endorse Democratic congressional candidates. According to the voter registration portal Vote.org, the site saw a flood of new registrants in the 24 hours after Swift posted her unprecedented statement to her 112 million Instagram followers. While it may seem like an immense amount of power for a celebrity even as influential as Swift to wield, psychology and marketing research shows that she is actually particularly well-poised to sway voters.
“Celebrities are really good at getting people to seek further information, so a fan may check out how to register to vote,” Gwen Nisbett, Ph.D., an associate professor of communications at the University of North Texas, tells Inverse.
In the post, Swift explained how her conscience led her to publicly endorse Democratic former Governor Phil Bredesen, who’s challenging Republican Marsha Blackburn for a US Senate seat in Tennessee, and Democratic US Representative Jim Cooper, who’s running for reelection. The effect was profound. “We are up to 65,000 registrations in a single 24-hour period since T. Swift’s post,” Kamari Guthrie, director of communications for Vote.org, told Buzzfeed News. During the entire month of August, there were only 56,669 new voter registrations. Swift beat that in a single day.
And yet, in light of communications and advertising research on celebrity endorsements, this robust response to a major celebrity’s endorsement of political candidates isn’t surprising at all.
Young People Like Nontraditional Information Sources
In a 2010 study on late-night programming in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, media scholar Barry Hollander showed that younger voters prefer to learn about political campaigns from nontraditional sources. He also found that young people who learn about political campaigns from late-night shows also show slightly improved recognition of information from the campaigns. By reaching young people who might eschew traditional political campaign ads, Swift may be having a similar effect.
Nisbett also notes that many people have “parasocial” relationships with celebrities — in which the fan is attached to the celebrity, but the celebrity has no attachment to the fan — that make a celebrity endorsement especially meaningful.
“Though these relationships are only one-sided, they can be as powerful as interpersonal relationships,” she says. “So Taylor saying ‘go vote’ can be like a friend telling someone to go vote.”
Credible Celebrities Make Credible Endorsers
To reach impressionable young voters, it would make sense that a celebrity political endorser must be credible. And as a 1991 paper in the Journal of Advertising Research showed, a celebrity’s expertise on a topic is indeed the most significant factor in their ability to influence consumer decisions.
When it comes to Swift, this criterion is a mixed bag. For fans and haters alike, her long-held silence on political and social issues was a sore spot on the artist’s reputation, but her personal experience as a victim in a highly public sexual assault case bolsters her credibility and supports the notion that she was moved by conscience to speak up against candidates like Blackburn, who has acted against rights for women and preventing sexual violence. This isn’t even to mention the fact that any citizen displaying familiarity with a politician’s voting record is particularly impressive. In this respect, Swift’s experience lends all the credibility she needs.
Spontaneous Celebrity Endorsements Can Seem More Genuine
Despite being highly criticized for being apolitical, Swift’s long silence could have played a role in making her endorsement appear more authentic. A 2017 study on political endorsements by controversial celebrities found that voters are more likely to vote for a candidate when it seems like a celebrity endorsement was the celebrity’s idea. The fact that Swift has rarely spoken about politics could bolster this appeal, says Nisbett, the 2017 study’s corresponding author.
“It’s as if the uniqueness of the appeal makes a bigger impact because fans weren’t expecting it,” she says. But again, her appeal depends a lot on whether her fans find it credible and whether they think it makes sense coming from her. “So for Taylor Swift fans, if they find her capable of making political decisions and a Democratic endorsement falls in line with her reputation, then perhaps you have fans inspired by her appeal. This, of course, has the potential to backfire with fans who find the appeal incongruous with how they see her.” For instance, if fans always assumed the musician was a Republican (or simply apolitical), they could be disillusioned by the revelation.
There Can Be Other Drawbacks, Too
In that 2017 study on celebrity endorsements, the researchers also found that endorsements from controversial celebrities could hurt a campaign, especially if a candidate publicly embraces the endorsement.
“If a candidate does comment, our research shows, this can make things even worse for voters who did not appreciate a controversial celebrity’s endorsement in the first place,” Christian von Sikorski, Ph.D., a senior communications researcher at the University of Vienna in Austria and the first author of the paper, tells Inverse. Bredesen seems encouraged by Swift’s endorsement, though, and has tweeted multiple references to it.
A controversial endorsement is only one potential hazard, though.
A 2013 marketing psychology study on celebrity product endorsements in Psychology & Marketing has shown that when celebrities endorse multiple products, consumers can get confused about which products they endorse, but in Swift’s case, her sole political endorsement sends a clear message. Additionally, a 1995 paper on the role of celebrities in social movements in Social Inquiry showed that a celebrity’s reputation or agenda can overshadow the issue at hand, making their endorsement more of a distraction than it is worth.
As a star with a self-proclaimed “big reputation,” it remains to be seen whether Swift’s impact on voter registration will translate to wins at the polls for her preferred candidates. What is clear is that her statement had an impact on her reputation with President Donald Trump, a Blackburn endorser who quipped after her post: “Let’s say that I like Taylor’s music about 25% less now, OK?”