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Clint Eastwood isn't endorsing Obama? How that doesn't detract from the ad.

Hollywood endorsements don't always work, but they can matter, especially if the message is perceived as authentic and the celebrity is respected. Like Clint Eastwood.

By Staff writer / February 7, 2012

This Chrysler ad starring Clint Eastwood titled 'It's Halftime In America' aired during Super Bowl XVLI Sunday.

Chrysler Group LLC/AP

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Los Angeles

The dustup over Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl “half-time in America” Chrysler ad – with the White House tweeting its surprise, Republicans crying foul, and the actor denying any intentional endorsement – nonetheless raises the question: How much do celebrity endorsements matter these days?

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After all, says Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer, “Clint Eastwood is very respected.” Despite the fact that he has not been a supporter of President Obama, she says, "this is being interpreted as a Democratic commercial." As such, she adds, “this could provide an interesting bump,” for the president.  

Hollywood A-Listers have been corralled into the political arena for decades – Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart were high-profile Republicans, for instance – but the ability to transfer fan love to a candidate has never been direct and is hard to gauge. While certainly not defining, celebrity “dust” is an undeniable and occasionally potent part of the political calculus, especially as presidential elections have gotten closer and the Internet has made viral celebrity reach almost unimaginable compared with the pre-Internet age.

“Just look at Mitt Romney standing on that dais with Donald Trump,” says Anthony Nownes, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, adding that while he might not have considered Mr. Trump an important ally in the fight, “Romney thought so and certainly got a lot of attention for the move.”

In an attempt to quantify the rub-off effect, Professor Nownes conducted a study of celebrity impact on the political views of some 300 voters in the run-up to the 2008 election. He used the then-wildly popular football player Peyton Manning as his test subject, revealing to his study participants that  the athlete was a Republican who supported GOP causes.

“Most of the people who were exposed to that information increased their view of the GOP,” says Prof. Nownes. “Not a lot, but that is significant,” he adds, especially as we move into a time where elections are being decided by very few votes.

History shows that a top-shelf endorsement is no guarantee of an easy victory, says Republican strategist David Johnson, who worked on Sen. Robert Dole’s 1988 presidential campaign. He points out that movie A-Listers Gary Cooper and John Wayne supported losing politicians such as Thomas Dewey and Wendell Wilkie. “Of course, they jumped on the Ike bandwagon, but Eisenhower could have won without that,” he says with a laugh, “after all he defeated the Nazis, how can you beat that?”

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