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Stars attract crowds, but not votes

Though celebrities are good at attracting a crowd in rallies, it is unclear whether they are good at bringing in the vote, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Dec 13, 2007 02:31 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Television host Oprah Winfrey's three-day presidential campaign tour with Barack Obama increased turnout for his rallies nearly tenfold. But though celebrities are good at attracting a crowd, it is unclear whether they are good at bringing in the vote.

Nonetheless, every US presidential hopeful has a celebrity or two in his or her coterie. Hillary Clinton has Steven Spielberg and Barbara Streisand. The number three Democrat, John Edwards, has Kevin Bacon and Jackson Browne. Republican candidate Ron Paul has the endorsement of the owner of the Midnight Blue Bunny brothel – the subject of an HBO series, as befits his anti-government ideology.

Most candidates just use the stars to increase the turnout at public events. Obama actually hopes Winfrey's immense popularity with women and black Americans will translate into extra votes. All of Winfrey's fans who showed up during their tour had to provide contact information to Obama staffers.

With only three weeks to go before the Iowa caucus kicks off the official campaign, it is understandable Obama is using every trick he can.

Though he trails Democratic frontrunner Clinton at the national level, he is just a few points behind her in the first two states that go to the polls. If he can win in either Iowa or New Hampshire, Obama gets the momentum to take the fight to the finish. If he loses both, Clinton will sail through.

These state votes are intra-party elections held to select the Republican and Democratic candidates. The actual national presidential vote is not until November 2008.

Clinton has been dismissive about celebrity power. "At the end of the day, it is a choice among those of us who are running."

Polls say she's right. A Pew Research poll in September said 70 per cent of Americans said they were unmoved by Winfrey's endorsement, only one per cent said they might be swayed. A USA Today/Gallup poll in October said eight per cent said they were more likely to vote for Obama because of Winfrey's backing, but this was more than offset by 10 per cent who said her endorsement made them less likely to vote for him.

Some celebrities, surveys have found, actually engender very strong negative reactions from voters.

However when it comes to star power, Hillary has the advantage. The most popular celebrity of the campaign stands next to her at every podium: her husband Bill. Over 40 per cent of her supporters have been polled as saying they are prepared to vote for her because of ex-president Bill Clinton – about the same number she gets in her own right.