The charismatic appeal of a celebrity-in-chief

donald trump in suit and red tie pointing into the distance
Name recognition gets celebrities in the door among voters, says Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Northeastern. But it takes more than that to win an election. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Reality TV personality and former U.S. president Donald Trump seems poised to make another run at the Oval Office in 2024. Another celebrity, talk-radio host Howard Stern, has floated the idea of running as well (and says he is certain he could best Trump at the polls).

man wearing suit and tie sitting in front of long grass

Costas Panagopoulos is a professor of political science and chair of the department in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Showmanship aside, Trump and Stern follow in a long tradition of celebrities attempting to transfer their clout into political victories. Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor before he was elected president, and he was the 33rd governor of California before that. The actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger followed the script, serving as the 38th governor of California for eight years—though the Austrian-born Terminator can’t run for president.

Dig a little deeper into the U.S. political system, and you’ll turn up the late John Glenn, an astronaut who served 25 years as a U.S. senator after his aerospace retirement, and Al Franken, a comedian and Saturday Night Live performer who was also elected to the Senate.

Not all celebrities who run for office win it, of course—actor Cynthia Nixon’s 2018 challenge against former New York governor Andrew Cuomo was unsuccessful, for example—but they attract a lot of attention nonetheless. What’s the appeal?

Name recognition gets celebrities in the door among voters, says Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Northeastern. But it takes more than that to win an election, he adds.

Why do celebrities get elected in the first place?

In politics, name recognition is worth its weight in gold, and for better or worse, celebrities have relatively high name recognition compared to political newcomers. As a result of that, voters recognize their names and can use that as a voting cue on a ballot. In addition, they feel like they know something about these individuals because they’ve been in the public spotlight for long periods of time.

They may or may not be accurate in those assessments, but that’s how voters will feel. We know that individuals are psychologically prone to favor things they’ve encountered in the past. So, faced with having to choose between two options, if one is something you’ve seen before, and the other is completely novel to you, you are psychologically prone to be biased in favor of the familiar object or idea.

That’s one of the reasons name recognition is so valuable in politics, because of this so-called “accessibility heuristic,” which causes people to evaluate things they’ve encountered in the past more favorably than things that are completely new and different to them.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily make celebrity politicians better or worse. It just means that they may have a leg up in elections. But celebrity status is only one factor of many that could potentially attract or repel voters, and it should be taken in context with other factors that could drive voting choices.

What are other qualities that make some celebrities more electable or better suited for political life?

Celebrities often have large personal and professional networks they can leverage for support, including financial support, and other resources. They also have experience with things like communications and public speaking that are very important on the campaign trail. We know, for example, that prior elective experience is a strong predictor of election outcomes in part because we believe that politicians have cultivated some skills that enable them to clearly communicate their positions and appeal to voters for support.

Taking name recognition into account, how might a celebrity fare in a presidential election against an incumbent?

Presidents of the United States typically have, if not universal, then very high, name recognition. In general, name-recognition can be a cue to voters when they have little other information to go on—we think of those as “low-salience” election contests. But in a presidential election, which is typically a high-salience contest, the celebrity signal can be less of a cue.

If you look back to 2016, when Trump was first elected, he was able to clinch the nomination in part because of his widespread familiarity among the public. He didn’t have to tell voters who he was, the way other candidates did. I think that that likely propelled his candidacy in the primary, but that’s not why he won the election.

Think about the first time Reagan ran for president—he lost. But when he ran against Carter, and Carter’s approval ratings were very low, Reagan managed to catapult his celebrity status into the White House. But, celebrity wasn’t the only, or even the dominant, factor.

Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan are two modern-day celebrity presidents, and they were both Republicans. Is the GOP better at harnessing celebrity than Democrats?

Well, there are plenty of celebrities on the Democrat side. We can think of people like John Glenn, who served in Congress for many years. If we were to take a wider view of celebrity, to include more than just actors or TV personalities, we would see that Democrats have shown that they too can reach out to well-known public figures.

Again, though, that doesn’t mean that every celebrity is going to be qualified for public office or that there aren’t liabilities to celebrities who aren’t properly vetted. Celebrities are used to playing by different rules and have different standards for their actions and behavior when they haven’t had the kind of public scrutiny that our politicians face. Many of them collapse under pressure, or collapse under that scrutiny. So, it’s a risky strategy if people aren’t thoroughly and properly vetted.

As for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, let me just say that while they both may have been celebrities, Donald Trump was no Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood celebrity, but he had considerable political experience, including serving as governor of the largest state before running for president. There are some parallels, but not many.

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