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Trump and the Celebrity-Candidate Phenomenon

Democrats are still licking their wounds from last week’s election defeats in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere. Some are calling for the party to refocus on moderate popular policies. This is perhaps the most realistic way forward; It’s the formula that top Republicans agreed on after their own bitter election defeat in 2012. But instead of following the prescription of their party leadership, the GOP grassroots nominated a celebrity and drove his popularity to an election victory. Why can’t the Democrats do the same?

After all, former President (and former reality TV star) Donald Trump is currently linked to two-time war president George W. Bush at the rank of most famous Republican, according to YouGov. He’s also the second most popular Republican after Arnold Schwarzenegger, another former entertainer. The late actor Ronald Reagan is one of America’s favorite presidents time and again. But if fame is defined as “first known for something other than politics,” the Democrats – the party that once elected comedian Al Franken, basketball player Bill Bradley and astronaut John Glenn – no longer have celebrities among their elected officials 20 most famous or 20 most popular politicians.

The argument for the Democrats to recruit better-known candidates is pretty straightforward: Celebrities offer a number of important benefits to aspiring politicians. Most Americans watch more television than political news, so they see more actors than legislators. Trump was the best-known GOP primary candidate in 2015: 92 percent of Republicans and Independents said they knew him, compared with 81 percent who said they knew the second best-known candidate, Jeb Bush. In a 2016 survey, 96 percent of respondents correctly identified a photo of Trump. Some preliminary research suggests Trump did better in the 2016 Republican primary in areas where more people had seen The Apprentice.

As trust craters in institutions, people may be looking for unconventional candidates to lead. “It happens all over the world,” says Eunji Kim, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. The Ukrainian President is currently a man who played the Ukrainian President on TV. A boxer and an actor – two different types – are currently running for President of the Philippines.

Fame can be especially helpful in crowded area codes or in bipartisan elections. The recognition value – the main advantage that a celebrity buys you – plays a role especially in elections with “little information content”. Because in any multi-party election, party affiliation is the most important factor in choosing a candidate. Republicans vote for Republicans; Democrats vote for Democrats. But in elections where there are no party differences – like most primaries and some mayoral elections – the better known candidate has an advantage.

“What do people know about the typical person running for office? Very little, actually, ”says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania. When they have little information about candidates, people tend to use familiar names – even if those names are ethnically similar to their own. “If you’re Irish and your name is Murphy on the ballot and the other name is, let’s say Anderson, you’re going to be voting for Murphy, all fair,” says Jamieson. Even having a common name can help you win down-vote races, says Jeffrey Glas, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. A voter might come to the polling station and think, “I’ve known Joe Davis before – yes, he was a good guy.” A name like “Taylor Swift” would probably be even better.

Television and film shape our politics more than many people are aware. Americans watch more television than people in other rich countries, but “more and more people are missing the news,” says Kim. Kim estimates that during The Apprentice’s heyday, the audience was three times that of NBC Nightly News, and that before Twitter deleted Trump’s account, 69 percent of The Apprentice’s followers on Twitter followed Trump. Another recent study found that Reagan’s tenure as host of the General Electric Theater television program in the 1950s gave him a boost two decades later in the 1976 Republican primary. In Italy, people who saw more of Mediaset’s low-brow network of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s as children than adults were more likely to support populist ideas and politicians. The brand of a prominent candidate is also important: Trump’s apprentice was that of a successful businessman who led other Americans into the American dream – a strong pitch for the president, even if it was far from reality.

Celebrity candidates tend to be more charismatic communicators than generic whites who have spent their lives hopping between the State Department and Harvard Kennedy School. “We have seen Ronald Reagan do this brilliantly throughout his political career,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Northeastern University. “His ability to deliver a speech or to interact with onlookers and live audiences was spectacular. And that was not only part of his attraction, but also enabled him to bring the country together at a time when it would have been very difficult for someone who lacked these skills. “

Many celebrities have flirted with running for Democrats. We are currently experiencing the Matthew McConaissance. And can you smell what potential presidential candidate The Rock has been cooking? Maybe it’s universal health coverage. Although some voters are too interested in politics to support a prominent candidate, others are rejected by politicians. The Rock might not be a Middle East expert, but it can be charming to speak openly about a lack of expertise.

Some Democratic strategists I contacted seemed open to prominent celebrities as long as they have good reason to run for office. “The most important thing is that the celebrity has a story about how they served the community or why they are running and wanting to serve the community,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic campaign committee.

When I asked the Democratic strategists who their dream celebrity candidates were, they played along: The coach of San Antonio Spurs and Trump critic Gregg Popovich appeared twice. Democrats approached actress and activist Eva Longoria about running in her home state of Texas. Another actor-activist, Alyssa Milano, occasionally walks up the hill in combat boots. Jon Hamm and Ashton Kutcher are from the alluring purple states of Missouri and Iowa, respectively. Who knows, maybe Camila Cabello will become a staunch supporter of immigration reform and run in Florida? “I would love it if Demi Lovato comes to power,” said Post, referring to the singer. “You really are the voice of a generation. Run, Demi, run! “

But even most strategists gradually refused to recruit more celebrities than candidates: “Nothing tells me we have to recruit a celebrity,” said A’shanti Gholar, the president of Emerge, which recruits democratic women for office to run for office. “If you don’t have a résumé that says, I did this for the people, and that’s what I fought for … office,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, leader of the Texas Democratic Party. “The idea of ​​celebrity recruiting for political office is a fallacy and a stupid errand,” said David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “Democratic primary voters tend to be very active,” said Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run for Something, which helps progressive candidates find local office. They “have less tolerance for emptiness”. She pointed out that Andrew Yang had a high profile in the New York City Mayor’s Race, but lost it nonetheless.

In other words, yes, there are some examples of hugely successful celebrity candidates. But no, professional Democrats don’t want to recruit any more from them. While prominent candidates offer the political advantage of high profile, they sometimes prove disastrous if they appear reckless or ill-prepared. “Has been shown to be a surprisingly effective leader,” few Americans would say of the 45th president.

Trump was an unusual case. Although polls showed he was known in 2015, Republicans viewed him negatively. But shortly after he announced his candidacy, he gave his base “some red meat that they really liked to hear, and suddenly they just changed their minds about him,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. That’s not an accomplishment for every celebrity: Schwarzenegger may have won enough Republican hearts to win the 2003 California recall, but “nobody listened to him when he was against Trump for the past few years,” says Murray.

Awareness is important, but rich people who aren’t celebrities can make a name for themselves by funding other candidates and buying ads. And: “When it becomes clear that [the celebrity] is poorly qualified, that could shoot the parties in the leg, ”says Panagopoulos. “And celebrities sometimes have skeletons in their closets that can be harmful if not properly checked.” The average actor has probably had more interesting youth than the average city council member, and not in a way that will resonate with voters. For these and other reasons, says Cindy Kam, another Vanderbilt political scientist, “I’m kind of skeptical that just looking for celebrities will really help you win elections.”

Given that Hollywood is notoriously liberal, one could expect more prominent candidates from the left. But it can be difficult to get celebrities interested in running. A notoriety perk isn’t a guarantee of victory: just ask failed celebrity contestants Caitlyn Jenner, Cynthia Nixon, and Kanye West. Many celebrities vaguely want to be “engaged” by posting Instagram captions about climate change, but they shy away when it comes to campaigns. With one very notable exception, most politicians begin in state or local office; they do not rise to the presidency without experience. The average state salary is $ 39,000, and the job is a lot of unspectacular work. Several television news anchors and college athletic coaches have run for local office – and in the case of Ashley Hinson of Iowa, even for Congress. These types of localized “celebrities” might be better suited to political office than great actors, said several strategists.

If they choose to run, prominent candidates who are used to being worshiped face a rude awakening to fussy reporters and angry voters asking tough questions on the trail of them. “Nobody should run and expect to get into an elected office just because of their name,” said DLCC Post. That comes on top of another very important hurdle: many celebrities – who keep a careful eye on box office sales – avoid saying openly that they are either a Republican or a Democrat. “Jeff Bezos has a generally positive opinion in the US,” says Glas, “but once he declares a party, half the country will hate him.” If he thought people hated his business practices, wait for him to stand related to abortion.

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