What is so attractive about a famous politician?


Reality TV personality and former US President Donald Trump seems ready to do another run at the Oval Office in 2024. Another celebrity, radio talk host Howard Stern, also pitched the idea of ​​introducing himself (and says he’s certain he could beat Trump in the polls).

Costas Panagopoulos is Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of the College of Social and Human Sciences at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Directing aside, Trump and Stern have a long tradition of celebrities trying to transfer their influence into political victories. Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor before he was elected president, and he was the 33rd Governor of California before that. Actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger followed the script, serving as the 38th governor of California for eight years, though the Austrian-born Terminator could not run for president.

Dig a little deeper into the American political system and you’ll discover the late John Glenn, an astronaut who served 25 years as a United States Senator after retiring from the aerospace industry, and Al Franken, a comedian and Saturday Night Live interpreter who was also elected to the Senate.

Of course, not all the celebrities who run for office win it – actress Cynthia Nixon’s 2018 challenge against former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo failed, for example – but they get a lot of attention nonetheless. . What’s the call?

Name recognition brings celebrities into voters, says Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Northeastern. But it takes more to win an election, he adds.

Why are celebrities elected in the first place?

In politics, notoriety is worth its weight in gold, and for better or worse, celebrities have relatively high notoriety compared to political newcomers. As a result, voters recognize their name and can use it as a voting signal on a ballot paper. Plus, they feel like they know something about these people because they’ve been in the public spotlight for a long time.

joe biden silhouette

They may or may not be accurate in these ratings, but that’s what voters will feel. We know that individuals are psychologically inclined to favor things that they have encountered in the past. So, when faced with having to choose between two options, if one is something you have seen before and the other is completely new to you, you are psychologically inclined to be biased in favor of the object or the subject. familiar idea.

This is one of the reasons that name recognition is so valuable in politics, because of this so-called ‘accessibility heuristic’, which causes people to rate things they have encountered in the past. more favorably than things that are completely new and different to them.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily make famous politicians better or worse. It just means that they can have a head start in elections. But celebrity status is just one factor among many that could potentially attract or repel voters, and it needs to be put in context with other factors that could guide voting choices.

What are the other qualities that make some celebrities more eligible or better suited to political life?

Celebrities often have extensive personal and professional networks that they can tap into for support, including financial support and other resources. They also have experience in areas like communication and public speaking which are very important during the election campaign. We know, for example, that past elective experience is a good predictor of election results, in part because we believe politicians have cultivated certain skills that allow them to clearly communicate their positions and solicit voter support.

Given the notoriety, how could a celebrity behave in a presidential election against an incumbent?

Presidents of the United States usually have, if not universal recognition, then very high. In general, name recognition can be a signal to voters when they have little other information to provide. But in a presidential election, which is usually a big contest, the fame signal may be less telling.

If you look back to 2016, when Trump was first elected, he was able to win the nomination in part because of his great familiarity with the public. He didn’t have to tell voters who he was like the other candidates did. I think that probably propelled his candidacy for 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 fame was not the only one, nor even the dominant factor.

Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan are two famous modern day presidents, and they were both Republicans. Is the GOP Better at Harnessing Fame Than Democrats?

Well, there are a lot 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 broader view of celebrity, to include more than actors or TV personalities, we would see that Democrats have shown that they too can reach well-known public figures.

Again, however, this does not mean that every celebrity will be qualified for public office or that there are no celebrity responsibilities that are not properly vetted. Celebrities are used to having 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 the pressure, or collapse under this scrutiny. It is therefore a risky strategy if people are not carefully and properly vetted.

As for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, let me just say that even though they were both celebrities, Donald Trump was not Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood celebrity, but he had considerable political experience, most notably as governor of the largest state before running for president. There are parallels, but not many.

For media inquiries, please contact Marirose Sartoretto at [email protected] or 617-373-5718.


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