This weekend’s Academy Awards overflowed with movie stars’ politically charged acceptance speeches. For better or for worse, celebrities are now a normal part of U.S. politics, whether stumping for their favorite presidential candidates, marching, testifying on Capitol Hill or running for elective office themselves.
Trump, of course, lacked political experience and the support of party insiders. But he was armed with a weapon his opponents and predecessors lacked: years of building voters’ feelings of intimate familiarity from his reality TV show.
The political advantages of celebrity
Trump’s extraordinary ability to command and direct public attention is one of many qualities celebrity candidates possess that are valuable when running for election. In my new book, “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate,” I explore what makes celebrities appealing political candidates compared with well-known conventional politicians.
The constitutional framers worried about celebrity candidates, characters whom Alexander Hamilton warned were poorly qualified to govern effectively but would benefit from “the little arts of popularity” in an election contest. My survey data suggests that eligible voters are only slightly less likely on average to vote for amateur celebrity candidates over their party’s familiar traditional political candidates.
I’m defining celebrity candidates as entertainers seeking elective office who have not held political office before. They start with many characteristics that traditional candidates — by which I mean politicians who have held office — have to spend decades honing. Celebrities are already widely known, popular and have passionate followers, all qualities essential to survival in show business — and in politics.
Of these, a key asset is name recognition. It’s especially important in large primary contests that force voters to choose from a long list of names that many will not have investigated. On this point, traditional politicians can’t match celebrity candidates.
My findings are consistent with other political science research that consistently shows that even in primary races, where voters are generally more informed and ideologically motivated than in general elections, gut-level measures like how familiar the candidate is often prevail over more complex policy concerns.
How I did my research
To assess whether voters are more likely to choose celebrities than politicians, I conducted two survey experiments. In one, respondents were asked to choose a presidential candidate from random pairings of celebrities and traditional politicians, all of whom identified with the respondent’s party.
The second experiment, conducted in March 2018 among a national sample of 6,091 eligible voters recruited through Qualtrics, showed participants images of traditional politicians and celebrities and asked how likely they would be to vote for each candidate for U.S. Senate. Respondents were again shown candidates who belonged to their party, but this time the party affiliation of the candidate was made explicit in the survey question.
Respondents evaluated each candidate on a four-point scale, with four meaning he or she was “very likely” to vote for the candidate and one meaning he or she would be “very unlikely” to vote for the candidate. To ease interpretation, I re-scaled these responses to span from 0 to 100.
As you can see, celebrity candidates, whether Democrats or Republicans, garner almost as much support as traditional political candidates — and in many cases garner more support.
Democratic respondents were likely to vote for Oprah Winfrey (she scored 66 out of 100), Tom Hanks (64 out of 100), Meryl Streep (57 out of 100), George Clooney (53 out of 100) and Alec Baldwin (51 out of 100). Presidential candidate Cory Booker scored 66 out of 100 among Democrats, very much in sync with the scores of these Democratic celebrity candidates. Of course, Booker is an experienced sitting U.S. senator, and yet Democrats said they were no more likely to vote for him for a job he already has than for Oprah Winfrey, who has no experience in politics.
Results were similar among Republicans, who are only slightly less likely to support celebrity candidates than traditional politicians. Celebrity candidates got a mean score of 49 out of 100; traditional politicians got a mean score of 55 out of 100.
Digging down a bit, you can see in the figure above that, as was true for Democrats, Republican respondents said they were as likely to vote for the top Republican celebrities as for prominent Republican politicians. Republican respondents in my survey were more likely to vote for Clint Eastwood (67 out of 100) than Condoleezza Rice (66 out of 100). They are also more likely to vote for actors Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Chuck Norris for Senate than for Mitt Romney, Carly Fiorina, Paul D. Ryan, John Kasich or Mike Bloomberg, who had not yet declared himself a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Don’t underestimate celebrity candidates
If celebrities are neck and neck with well-known politicians when they are not actively campaigning for office, increased exposure and targeted messaging tactics would probably only help them in an actual race. Observers may want to think twice before dismissing Cardi B’s political aspirations, Kanye West’s announcement that he’ll run for president in 2024 or the Johnson-Hanks ticket that they jokingly launched on “Saturday Night Live” in 2017. Any one of these would probably be a contender.
Lauren A. Wright (@DrLaurenAWright) is an associate research scholar and lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and author of “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate” (Routledge University Press, 2019).