The Forgotten Secret of Trump’s Success

Celebrity candidates bring distinct advantages to their races, but Democrats say they don’t want to recruit more of them. Here’s why.

The White House with the Hollywood sign embedded on it
Getty; The Atlantic

Democrats are still licking their wounds from defeats in last week’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Some are calling for the party to refocus on popular moderate policies. Perhaps that’s the most realistic path forward; it’s the formula that top Republicans settled on following their own stinging electoral defeat in 2012. But instead of following its party leadership’s prescription, the GOP base nominated a celebrity, and rode his popularity to electoral triumph. Why can’t Democrats do the same?

After all, former President (and former reality-TV star) Donald Trump is currently tied with the two-term wartime president George W. Bush for the rank of most famous Republican, according to YouGov. He is also the second-most-popular Republican, after Arnold Schwarzenegger, another former entertainer. The late actor Ronald Reagan consistently ranks among Americans’ favorite presidents. But if you define celebrity as “initially well known for something other than politics,” the Democrats—the party that once counted the comedian Al Franken, the basketball player Bill Bradley, and the astronaut John Glenn among its elected officials—now have no celebrities among their 20 most well-known or 20 most popular politicians.

The argument in favor of the Democrats recruiting more-famous candidates is pretty clear cut: Celebrity offers a number of important advantages to aspiring politicians. Most Americans consume more television than political news, so they see more actors than they do legislators. Trump was the best-known GOP primary candidate in 2015: 92 percent of Republicans and independents said they were familiar with him, compared with 81 percent who said they were familiar with the next-best-known candidate, Jeb Bush. In one 2016 poll, 96 percent of respondents correctly identified a photo of Trump. Some preliminary research suggests that Trump performed better in the 2016 Republican primary in areas where more people had watched The Apprentice.

As trust in institutions craters, people may look to unconventional candidates for leadership. “This is happening all around the world,” says Eunji Kim, a Vanderbilt University political-science professor. Ukraine’s president is currently a man who played Ukraine’s president on TV. A boxer and an actor—two different guys—are currently running for president of the Philippines.

In crowded primary fields, or in nonpartisan elections, fame can be especially helpful. Name recognition—the main advantage celebrity buys you—matters primarily in “low information” elections. That’s because in any multiparty election, the most important factor influencing whether someone will vote for a candidate is their party affiliation. Republicans vote for Republicans; Democrats vote for Democrats. But in elections that don’t have a partisan divide—like most primaries and some mayoral races—the candidate who is more well-known has an edge.

“What do people know about the typical person running for office? Actually very little,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania. When they have little information about candidates, people gravitate toward familiar names—even if those names are simply ethnically similar to their own. “If you’re Irish, and the name is Murphy on the ballot, and the other name is, say, Anderson, all things being equal, you’re gonna vote for Murphy,” Jamieson says. Even having a common name can help you win down-ballot races, says Jeffrey Glas, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia. A voter might get to the polling place and think, “​​I knew a Joe Davis before—yeah, he was a good guy.” A name like “Taylor Swift” would presumably be even better.

Television and movies shape our politics more than many people realize. Americans watch more TV than people in other rich countries, but “more and more people are opting out of news,” Kim says. Kim estimates that, during The Apprentice’s heyday, its audience was three times as large as that of the NBC Nightly News and that, before Twitter deleted Trump’s account, 69 percent of The Apprentice’s followers on Twitter also followed Trump. Another recent study found that Reagan’s tenure as the host of the 1950s TV show General Electric Theater gave him an electoral boost two decades later, in the 1976 Republican primary. In Italy, people who as children watched more of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s low-brow network, Mediaset, became more likely to support populist ideas and politicians as adults. A celebrity candidate’s brand also matters: Trump’s Apprentice persona was that of a successful businessman who ushered other Americans into the American dream—a strong pitch for president, even if it was far from reality.

Celebrity candidates tend to be more charismatic communicators than generic white guys who spent their lives bouncing between the State Department and the Harvard Kennedy School. “We watched Ronald Reagan do this brilliantly over the course of his political career,” says Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Northeastern University. “His ability to deliver a speech or to connect with viewers and live audiences was spectacular. And that was part of not only his appeal, but also what allowed him to bring the country together at times when it would have been very difficult for someone who lacked those skills to do so.”

Plenty of celebrities have flirted with running for office as Democrats. We are currently living through the Matthew McConaissance. And can you smell what potential presidential candidate The Rock’s been cooking? Maybe it’s universal health care. Although some voters care too much about policy to back a celebrity candidate, others are repulsed by politicians. The Rock may not be a Middle East expert, but speaking plainly about one’s lack of expertise can be charming.

Some Democratic strategists I reached out to seemed open to prominent celebrities running, as long as they have a good reason to seek office. “The most important thing is that the celebrity has a story about how they have served the community or why they are running and want to serve the community,” says Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

When I asked the Democratic strategists who their dream celebrity candidates would be, they played along: The San Antonio Spurs coach and Trump critic Gregg Popovich came up twice. Democrats have approached the actor and activist Eva Longoria about running in her home state of Texas. Alyssa Milano, another actor-activist, occasionally takes to the Hill in combat boots. Jon Hamm and Ashton Kutcher are from the tantalizingly purple states of Missouri and Iowa, respectively. Who knows, maybe Camila Cabello becomes a staunch advocate for immigration reform and runs in Florida? “I would love Demi Lovato to run,” Post said, referring to the singer. “They really are the voice of a generation. Run, Demi, run!”

But one by one, most of the strategists also rejected the idea of recruiting more celebrities as candidates: “Nothing is telling me that we have to go recruit a celebrity,” said A’shanti Gholar, the president of Emerge, which recruits Democratic women to run for office. “If you don’t have some kind of a résumé that says, This is what I’ve done for people, and this is what I’ve fought for … then we don’t have any business recruiting such a person to run for office,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “The idea that you can recruit celebrities to run for political office is a fallacy and a fool’s errand,” said David Turner, the communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “Democratic primary voters tend to be really engaged on substance,” Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run for Something, which helps progressive candidates seek local office, told me. They “have less of a tolerance for emptiness.” She pointed out that Andrew Yang had high name recognition going into the New York City mayoral race, but lost anyway.

In other words: Yes, some examples of extremely successful celebrity candidates exist. But, no, professional Democrats don’t want to recruit more of them. Although celebrity candidates offer the political benefit of high name recognition, they sometimes prove disastrous if they appear reckless or ill-prepared. “Turned out to be a surprisingly effective leader” is something few Americans would say about the 45th president.

Trump was an unusual case. Though polling showed that he was well known in 2015, Republicans viewed him negatively. But soon after he announced his candidacy, he gave his base “some red meat that they really liked hearing, and suddenly they just switched their opinion on him,” says Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. That’s not a feat just any celebrity can pull off: Schwarzenegger may have captured enough Republican hearts to win the 2003 California recall, but “nobody was listening to him when he was opposing Trump over the last few years,” Murray says.

Name recognition is important, but rich people who aren’t celebrities can buy themselves name recognition by funding other candidates and buying ads. What’s more, “if it becomes clear that [the celebrity] is poorly qualified, that could shoot the parties in the foot,” Panagopoulos says. “And celebrities sometimes have skeletons in their closets that can be damaging if they’re not suitably vetted.” The average actor is likely to have had a more interesting youth than the average city-council member, and not in a way that plays well with voters. For those reasons and others, says Cindy Kam, another Vanderbilt political scientist, “I’m sort of skeptical as to whether simply looking for celebrities is going to really help win elections.”

Given that Hollywood is notoriously liberal, one might expect more celebrity candidates on the left. But getting celebrities interested in running for office can be difficult. A name-recognition advantage is no guarantee of victory: Just ask the failed celebrity candidates Caitlyn Jenner, Cynthia Nixon, and Kanye West. Many celebrities want to be vaguely “engaged,” writing Instagram captions about climate change, but they balk when it comes to campaigning. With one very notable exception, most politicians start out in state or local office; they don’t skyrocket to the presidency with no experience. The average salary for a state legislator is $39,000, and the job is a lot of unglamorous work. Several TV newscasters and college-sports coaches have successfully run for local office—and even Congress, in the case of Iowa’s Ashley Hinson. These kinds of localized “celebrities” might be a better fit for political office than big-time actors, several strategists said.

If they do decide to run, celebrity candidates, accustomed to being adored, face a rude awakening when nitpicky reporters and angry voters ask them tough questions on the trail. “No one should run and expect that they’re just going to walk into elected office because of their name,” said Post, of the DLCC. That’s in addition to another very important hurdle: Many celebrities—keeping a cautious eye on box-office sales—avoid saying outright that they are either a Republican or a Democrat. “Jeff Bezos has a generally favorable opinion in the United States,” Glas says, “but once he declares a party, half the country is gonna hate him.” If he thought people detested his business practices, wait ’til he takes a position on abortion.