The scene was unexpected, to say the least: In the middle of a nail salon in gritty Detroit, controversial young rapper Cardi B sat across from 78-year-old Senator Bernie Sanders, questioning the would-be Democratic presidential nominee about the issues of the day.
From health care to police violence, the rapper grilled the aging politician for 12 minutes. Once the interview was over, Cardi B posted snippets on social media, where they would be viewed millions of times.
Reaching potential voters with no great interest in politics is hugely important for candidates, who often seek celebrities’ help in breaking through. And in the United States, where Hollywood awards shows are often politicized, many celebrities are only too happy to take their political views to a broader public.
If the other most left-leaning Democratic candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, can brag about the backing of soccer world champion Megan Rapinoe or superstar actor Scarlett Johansson, self-described democratic socialist Sanders has his own impressive list of supporters from among the country’s youngest and trendiest stars.
The oldest of the 11 Democrats still in the race, Sanders scored a major coup when he posed with global pop star Ariana Grande (who has 173 million Instagram followers) after a concert.
The Sanders paradox — he galvanized youthful supporters in his 2016 campaign as well — is alluded to in a video by supermodel Emily Ratajkowski.
“He is not a young, sexy candidate,” she says, adding that “he is powerful not because of who he is as one person, but because of the way he invigorates people.”
Is Sanders stocking up on under-30 star supporters in order to distract from his own advanced age? His staff strongly denies this.
Cardi B, who herself recently expressed interest in pursuing politics, “grew up, you know, in a working-class environment in New York,” said Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ national press secretary.
Having “only recently become successful,” Gray added, the rapper knows something about issues like low-wage jobs.
The interview in a nail salon “was her idea,” said Rene Spellman, Sanders’ deputy campaign manager, adding that “we have a lot of hip-hop endorsers.”
Both women said it was the candidate’s history as an anti-establishment figure from a culture of protest that has attracted youthful celebrities and others, not to mention older personalities like film makers Michael Moore and Jim Jarmusch.
The concert candidate
But do these endorsements make a real difference?
Even more than this weekend’s pre-rally concerts with indie groups like Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend or various fundraising events, they can reach different audiences.
“We have to find ways to reach audiences that aren’t the same people who are maybe watching the mainstream news,” Gray told AFP.
Spellman, who has worked in the music industry, added that politicians need to reach out to people who don’t necessarily see the relevance of politics.
The support of stars, added Spellman, who is responsible for the campaign’s relations with celebrities, can help a candidate appeal on a more personal basis.
“When you know who Cardi B is… and then you see her pushing very hard for a particular candidate, you understand the connection between her experience and her involvement,” Spellman said.
“And then it starts to make the connection in your own life real and relevant.”
A key to victory?
Celebrity endorsements “have been a part of US presidential politics for nearly a hundred years,” said David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. “But in the past 30 years or so, celebrity involvement has grown.”
He said there were “lots of studies showing that celebrity endorsements do influence not just people’s opinions about particular policies, but their votes as well.”
But there are two keys to whether endorsements matter: the star must be well-liked and must have some credibility on the subject being discussed.
Can endorsements guarantee victory? Hardly.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the candidate with by far the longest list of star supporters, most of them Democrats.
But she lost to Donald Trump.
Even if such support doesn’t translate directly into votes, it can be useful, Jackson said, because celebrities “bring excitement to candidates, and attract media attention.”
Indeed, there was no shortage of journalists — including from AFP — covering Bernie Sanders’ nail-salon summit with Cardi B.