If we’re to believe the headlines of the past couple days, Taylor Swift’s decision to announce her plans to vote for Democrats in the Tennessee midterms has single-handedly led to a rush of voter registrations, a new political force awakened by 2 million Instagram likes. “Taylor Swift’s Instagram Post Has Caused a Massive Spike in Voter Registration,” BuzzFeed News headlined its report on the reputed phenomenon, and that confident assertion quickly spread to other outlets. But there is cause to be skeptical about the specifics and the reach of the “Swift effect.”
For one thing, the BuzzFeed News story was not about trends in voter registration writ large but instead registrations recorded through a single non-profit, Vote.org. “Thank god for Taylor Swift,” Vote.org’s Director of Communications Kamari Guthrie told the site on Monday, which helped set off the cascade of reports. Swift named Vote.org in her post, and the non-profit said it recorded 65,000 new registrations in the first 24 hours after it went live, which led to that claim of a “massive spike.” Vote.org Chief Operating Officer Raven Brooks said today the number has now climbed to 212,871 new registrations since Swift posted on Sunday.
After I inquired about the impressive numbers in the BuzzFeed story, Guthrie sent me an updated fact sheet that seems to undercut the more declarative headlines about Swift’s impact. The new release concedes the numbers can’t definitively tell us what many claim they do. “Can it be attributed to Swift?” it asks of the sudden spike in registrations. “Not directly, unfortunately. We’re only able to track registrations directly if we work with someone in advance and they use a special link.” (Brooks told me Swift wasn’t in touch with Vote.org before her post, and Guthrie said the group doesn’t put an emphasis on outreach to “influencers.”)
In other words, there’s no real way to track what motivated all those registrations. But what would explain such a sudden spike, if not for Swift’s post? As Brooks acknowledged, many voters tend to register at the last minute—and Tuesday is the deadline to register in many states, including Tennessee, where Swift plans to vote. Past trends would lead one to anticipate a sudden spike this time of year, with or without Taylor Swift. Still, Brooks presented the unusual registration momentum in Tennessee as evidence of the Swift effect. He said such a relatively small state wouldn’t normally crack the group’s top 10 states in new voter registrations; after the post, Tennessee did, at No. 9.
On a national scale, Vote.org’s data shows that voter registration through the non-profit had already ticked up steadily each month closer to the elections. August’s 56,669 registrations gave way to September’s 190,178. In October so far, there have been 237,428 registrations, which Brooks said was unusually high. (In October 2016, in a charged presidential election year, the group recorded 405,149 registrations for the full month.) Even with an unrelated upward trend, Brooks described the new registrations as a unique event in the group’s history. Whether it was Swift directly, the urgency of the related deadline, or the furor her post raised in the press—President Trump himself responded, saying he “like[s] Taylor’s music about 25 percent less now”—Brooks didn’t hesitate to credit Swift with the trend. Another telltale sign, Brooks said: The most new registrations in the past two days came from the 18-to-24 demographic, a crucial one for Swift, whereas in 2016, most registrations around this time came from people ages 30 to 39.
(What about the, uh, other big political story of the weekend—the confirmation and swearing in of new Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh? I asked Brooks if he considered that a possible factor in the sudden upward trend, especially given the protests that erupted. “That’s not really something that we’ve observed,” he said. “I’m even going back to 2016, where even the debates and whatnot would be a minor blip, but they wouldn’t be anything super significant.” Indeed, the group recorded only 16,928 registrations on Saturday, when Kavanaugh was confirmed.)
Asked if Vote.org felt a need to backpedal once the headlines about the “Swift effect” went viral, Brooks said, “I don’t want to leave you with that impression.” “The thing is that even in the best case, if we had more advance with them and they were actually sending over a direct link and we can track everything that was coming through—the minute it crosses all the social, you lose the ability to track that directly.” Still, he said, “the one thing I can say is this is absolutely been a massive 48-hour period for us and I would attribute it in large part to her. We would’ve had elevated traffic from normal because of registration deadlines happening this week, but this is an order of magnitude greater than anything we’ve seen to date.”
And if attention-grabbing headlines continue that momentum, so be it. Brooks noted that not long before we got on the phone, Rihanna had also plugged Vote.org on Instagram. He did not sound upset.