They boast great name recognition and are often wealthy and alpha in personality; Trump, Schwarzenegger and Al Franken are proof those matter
Updated: March 20, 2018
Celebrity-politicians are increasingly imagining voters saying “you’re hired!”
Since America’s first reality television president took office, an array of bold-faced names has very publicly flirted with elected office. “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon on March 19 announced her bid to challenge incumbent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination, and was swiftly endorsed by her cast mate Kristin Davis. The 51-year-old activist is running on a progressive platform, with a particular focus on fixing the troubled New York City subway. (She was reportedly encouraged by the incumbent’s alleged “meltdown.”)
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s name is being floated against incumbent Donald Trump for 2020, while Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s manager Scooter Braun—a celebrity in his own right—is reportedly being asked by Democratic donors to run for Governor of California. Olympian-turned-transgender icon Caitlyn Jenner is thinking about a run for Senate, where she could rub shoulders with ex-Red Sox loudmouth Curt Schilling, who may or may not challenge Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts next year. NBA great Shaq O’Neal plans to campaign for sheriff in 2020. The list goes on.
A representative for Braun had no comment and The Rock wasn’t available for an interview. Kid Rock wasn’t available for comment.
America has seen entertainers who think they could do the job, but Trump’s unlikely win last year is persuading an unusually large number of celebs to ponder throwing their hat into the ring. “The door opened a little bit more,” says Eric Kasper, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire who has studied the role of celebrities in politics. “I think we’re going to see more at least consider running for office, and a greater number who actually will.”
There aren’t any readily available studies of celebrity-politician’s electoral records since only a sliver of stars actually run for office. Some who do are half-hearted about it: Howard Stern dropped a New York gubernatorial campaign after refusing to release information about his finances. “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken and Shirley Temple failed in their respective quests to enter the House of Representatives, while ex-Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann fell short in his 2006 attempt to become governor of Pennsylvania. But empirically, those who run serious campaigns do pretty well.
California sent two conservative actors in Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan—later president—to Sacramento. Former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was a small-town mayor and later a successful third party candidate as governor of Minnesota. The late Jack Kemp turned a football career into nine terms in the House of Representatives, a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development gig and the GOP’s 1996 VP nod. The Senate is particularly friendly: the late “Law & Order” star Fred Thompson, ex-pro basketballer Bill Bradley and former SNL-er Al Franken, who last year won re-election, have spent time there.
These entertainers most commonly succeed because their name recognition forces voters to give them an initial look. This is especially useful if there’s a crowded field of candidates. “If Kid Rock walks through the county fair, he creates a stir,” says David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University. “The other guys are busting their hump for small crowds, but they have the ability to deliver a message that gives them a chance.”
This asset is enhanced because social media is key to the electioneering process. Kid Rock has nearly 6 million fans on Facebook, or more than 12 times as many as the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s largest newspaper. That also dwarfs the roughly 100,000 followers his likely rival, Sen. Debbie Stabenow has on that platform, overturning the advantage of familiarity most incumbents have. (Of course, whether the “American Badass” singer’s fans can and will vote for him is a different story.)
The first look can harden into a vote if the celebrity’s image makes him or her look like a leader who can cut through chaos. “There’s a lot of gridlock in terms of Congress and the state legislatures, which is an opportunity for outsiders like celebrities to run a campaign,” says Kasper. Trump is the prime example of this, promising on the campaign that “I alone can solve.”
“The Trump phenomenon teaches the importance of building a brand,” says Jackson. “He was performing on TV what some think is the role of the president, being this hyper masculine hiring and firing guy.”
But for every Reagan, there’s a Schwarzenegger, who many political analysts see as a disappointment in office. Whereas acting is a relatively solitary activity, the confidence of newbie pols often runs into a wall once they’re faced with obstinate legislatures. “In any separation powers of system, effecting change is a lot easier said than done,” says Kasper.
Another aspect of celebrity that greases the wheels is the ability to fundraise or self-fund. That’s increasingly key in our ever more polarized political environment, in which even local races often seen an influx of cash from out-of-town donors and SuperPACs that can essentially spend unlimited amounts of money. The special election this past June in Georgia’s sixth district for instance, was the most expensive House race in American history—some estimates peg total spending at close to $50 million.
Trump also spent about $66 million of his own fortune on his path to the White House, though he didn’t self-fund his campaign as he said he would. “Celebrities tend to be independently wealthy or to run in circles with people who are wealthy,” says Kasper. “That helps in the modern reality of how much it takes to run for office.”
Still, the halo of celebrity tends to wear off by the time re-election comes around. “The judgment shifts and the people become more concerned about what the politician has done for them,” Jackson says. “There’s a statute of limitations” on celebrity.
This story was updated on March 20, 2018 with news of Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial bid in New York.
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