Editor’s Note: Lauren A. Wright is an associate research scholar and lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University. She has written two books on presidential politics, including “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate” (Routledge, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @drlaurenawright. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
From Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to Herschel Walker, to Caitlyn Jenner, potential celebrity candidates seem to be cropping up at all levels of elected office in the US. While some trumpet these prospects as a keystone of American democracy – almost anyone can run for office regardless of qualifications – others laugh off the ambitions of entertainers as misguided attention grabs. Still others cheer on the candidacies of celebrities whose partisan affiliation lines up with their own and lambaste those running on the other side of the aisle.
One thing no one should do: ignore or underestimate celebrity candidates. As I argue in my book, celebrity candidates are armed with attributes that often make them uniquely gifted campaigners – and singularly bad government representatives.
The advantages celebrities have on the campaign trail are numerous. When celebrities like Walker and Jenner enter the political fray, their experience is drastically different from that of traditional politicians. Media coverage of their candidacy is automatic, vast and tends to be positive in tone – they gain public prominence as heroes and relatable figures, coming from industries that monetize popularity.
Jenner, for example, has high name recognition and generates lots of public interest. More than 64% of survey respondents correctly identified her in an open-ended response question in my research, and a standard Google search for “Caitlyn Jenner” on Friday yielded 15.3 million results. By contrast, a Google search for Jenner’s fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate and two-term San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer produces less than 400,000 results. Possible Georgia Senate hopeful, and former NFL player, Herschel Walker also eclipses sitting Sen. Raphael Warnock (his prospective opponent) in this regard, with 7.5 million results to Warnock’s 2.7 million, even though Walker has not officially jumped into the race.
Built-in fan bases and social media followings further allow celebrities to amplify their campaign messages and position themselves – much like former President Donald Trump did – as relatable political outsiders, even as they tap deep donor networks and enjoy lifestyles most voters could not dream of.
Celebrity candidates also benefit from structural features of the American campaign landscape. Political scientists have long noted the decline of party-centered elections and the sustained focus of voters and media organizations on the personality traits of candidates rather than their policy positions. A myopic, underinformed and unengaged public underscores these forces. The same population often opts out of political news altogether in favor of entertainment content, and news shows wary of shrinking audiences increasingly resemble entertainment.
This is a political environment in which celebrity candidates thrive.
Of course, the potential success of each celebrity candidate depends on the contours of the race in which they are running, and descriptive statistics that measure things like favorability and electability vary widely among celebrities.
For instance, in 2018, I asked 1,776 Republicans in a survey how likely they would be to vote for Jenner in a hypothetical US Senate race. Jenner scored 28 out of 100 on a likelihood to vote scale, the lowest of any Republican celebrity or politician in my study. Her mean favorability score was also among the lowest in my study, less than 34% on a “feeling thermometer” scale. These numbers suggest Jenner may have a difficult time winning the Republican gubernatorial primary, let alone a general election in California, where there are approximately five million more registered Democrats than Republicans.
But that does not mean candidacies like Jenner’s are not cause for concern. In the wake of Trump’s tumultuous presidency, which ended with a global health pandemic, an armed insurrection and a second impeachment, it seems that Republicans have not yet learned about the potential dangers of plucking leaders who became famous from show business.
Rather than be treated as a personality-driven anomaly, Trump should serve as a warning about characteristics that are largely generalizable to celebrities and other political novices. For the most part, they lack the relevant experience and skills needed to successfully navigate government institutions and strike bipartisan compromises. Moreover, they tend to surround themselves with stalwarts and sycophants, amateurs who who have neither incentive nor knowledge to work through the arduous and unglamorous work of legislating.
In fact, their naivete might make them even more inclined to make poor decisions and take counsel from ill-meaning actors. Indeed, Trump’s personality-driven approach to international relations and his willingness to abandon democratic norms and safeguards when he perceived them to be in his interest was a constant concern of government officials.
Voters are understandably tempted to reject establishment figures in favor of fresh faces who endearingly and convincingly communicate our everyday needs and priorities amid once-in-a-generation social and economic challenges – particularly when politicians have failed to rise to the occasion. But celebrities are neither remedies to, nor immune from, the smoke-filled rooms and political machines of the past. Americans deserve government that takes governing seriously.