How Black Hollywood Can Help Obama

Tatyana Ali (John W. Ferguson/Getty); Barack Obama (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty);Gabrielle Union (Fernando Leon/Getty)
Tatyana Ali (John W. Ferguson/Getty); Barack Obama (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty);Gabrielle Union (Fernando Leon/Getty)

(The Root) — Though the winner of the 2012 presidential election remains far from certain, the winner of one contest between the campaigns of Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama has already been decided.


When it comes to celebrity endorsements, there is no contest. The Obama campaign has a virtual lock on support from Hollywood, hip-hop and just about every other corner of entertainment. But when it comes to the contest that really matters on Election Day, do celebrity endorsements matter?

Celebrities such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Kerry Washington and recently the cast of HBO's The Wire have all voiced their support for President Obama. They have opened their wallets at fundraisers and hit the campaign trail to aid in his re-election efforts.

Like many Republicans before him, Gov. Romney has enjoyed far less celebrity support, with TV star Kelsey Grammer one of the few high-profile actors to publicly declare his support for the GOP candidate.

According to Ari Melber, a former national staff member for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, this gap in star power is unlikely to keep the Romney campaign up at night. "I don't think people who are simply famous affect voters of any age," Melber told The Root. He added that there are certain celebrities who can actually make a difference to a campaign, but rarely in the ways that people may think.

He recalled from his campaign experience that certain celebrities think their time is best spent hobnobbing with the candidate or appearing at high-profile, heavily covered events. Celebrities can be useful, he noted, but usually at smaller events where they can function as surrogates speaking to voters on behalf of the candidate when the candidate is unavailable. Their presence could convince certain voters to attend a gathering who might otherwise be unlikely to attend.

Actress Tatyana Ali, best known for her role as Ashley Banks on the long-running sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, explained that this is the role she is striving to fill as a volunteer on the 2012 Obama campaign. Ali has served as a surrogate for the campaign, speaking primarily to African-American audiences and on college campuses. When asked if she believes that being a celebrity helps her reach voters in ways that other volunteers or staff members might not, she said that it does.


"Whether [it's] earned or not," she told The Root, "people sometimes look to celebrities as leaders or tastemakers, especially with young people." But she noted that the primary advantage celebrities bring to campaigns is a measure of recognition and built-in trust with an audience of fans who may feel a connection with them that has been cultivated over years in the public eye. That recognition, she said, is not limited to young people. If people of all ages "see someone they are familiar with, they are more likely to come to a rally or [event] and listen to the message."

Melber reiterated that this depends largely on who the celebrity is and what his or her brand stands for. He distinguished between celebrities who are just famous and celebrities who are perceived as thought leaders. Lady Gaga's outspoken activism in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and marriage makes her support of President Obama more noteworthy than that of just another singer. In contrast, he said, "Kim Kardashian may have a lot of Twitter followers whom she may be able to convince to buy lip gloss, but they are not going to follow her down the path to the voting booth."


President Obama's historic election is largely credited to a record increase in the number of young people of color who voted in 2008. According to analysis, there were 5 million new voters in the last presidential election. The majority of them were racial minorities and voted for Barack Obama. These voters are credited with giving the Obama campaign an edge in several key states, but the two states where younger voters and minority voters overlapped to make the biggest difference are Indiana and North Carolina.

This fact is clearly not lost on the Obama campaign. When asked specifically about instances in which celebrity supporters have significantly helped the campaign, Valeisha Butterfield-Jones, the campaign's Youth Vote director, pointed to an event in North Carolina. She cited the Greater Together tour of HBCUs that kicked off at North Carolina Central University. According to Butterfield-Jones, there was a line around the block to enter the event, which was hosted by Gabrielle Union. The actress, she said, had everyone "truly fired up."


The verdict is still out on whether or not Union and other celebrities can fire up the same number of young voters in 2012 that they did in 2008. 

Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter