Political celebrities have a leg up, but their advantages can’t outweigh their fundraising failures

by Richard T. Longoria, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley [This article first appeared in The Conversation, republished with permission]

TV personality Mehmet Oz lost his bid for Pennsylvania senator in the November midterms. And former NFL star Herschel Walker appears to be trailing his challenger, incumbent Raphael Warnock, as he heads into a Dec. 6, 2022 runoff for the Georgia senator.

While celebrity political candidates have advantages such as name recognition and media attention, they often lose bids for public office.

They lose for the same reasons other candidates lose. If they represent the minority party in a district or state dominated by one party, they lose. If they take unpopular political positions, they lose. If they are never considered to be serious candidates, they lose.

I am a political scientist specializing in American politics. In my recently published book, “Celebrities in American Elections,” I show that celebrity candidates who win the fundraising battle tend to win their elections — and those who lag behind in fundraising tend to lose.

Political Fundraising Matters

Both Oz and Walker lost fundraising battles against their opponents, Democratic politicians John Fetterman and Raphael Warnock, in the November 2022 midterms.

Not including substantial spending by outside political and advocacy groups, Federal Election Commission data shows Fetterman raised $17 million more than Oz, and Warnock raised $86 million more than Walker.

The ability to raise money is an indicator of a candidate’s strength. It also allows candidates to hire professional staff and pay for advertising to persuade voters.

The candidates, celebrity or not, who raise more money tend to win.

There are many examples that show the specific link between celebrity candidates raising money during campaigns and being elected.

Hollywood stars Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger all outspent their opponents and got elected. Singer Sonny Bono, meanwhile, outspent his rival in mayoral and House races and won in the 1980s and 1990s. When Bono outspent his opponent in his 1992 Senate bid, he lost the race .

Other examples show the connection between the failure of celebrity candidates to outperform their opponents in fundraising and their eventual loss.

Hollywood performers Shirley Temple, Gary Coleman, Roseanne Barr, Cynthia Nixon, Kanye West and Caitlyn Jenner raised less than their opponents and lost the election.

Self-funded candidates who rely predominantly on their own wealth, like Dr. Oz, tend to lose. Because self-funded candidates tend to be political outsiders, they are less likely to be supported by political insiders who are major donors. The donor class tends to support stronger and more experienced candidates.

Other rules of the game

There are other trends at play during the election. Some of them include whether a candidate is a candidate and has name recognition and what their party affiliation is. And while celebrity candidates certainly have many advantages, they are not as popular as some observers would suspect.

Pennsylvania and Georgia have been key states in recent election cycles, with both the presidency and control of the Senate tied to their voters’ choices.

Political science consistently shows that it is easier to flip an open seat than to defeat an incumbent.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey announced in October 2020 that he would not seek re-election in Pennsylvania. That opened the door for Democrats to flip the seat.

Fetterman, a statewide elected official with a strong base of support, name recognition and a fundraising advantage, secured the Nov. 8 open seat. Democrats were worried he would lose the race after Fetterman’s poor debate performance, but he still won.

While Oz had name recognition thanks to his television show, he was successfully defined as a carpetbagger in the state and could not match his opponent’s spending.

In Georgia, incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, has a base of support, name recognition and a fundraising advantage. Walker has name recognition, but has faced questions about his mental state and appeared inept on the campaign trail. Although the race is close, Walker’s inexperience has shown and he has been outplayed by Warnock so far.

For Walker to win the tour, a few things would have to happen.

Walker should get the votes of Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver, who so far has not endorsed either Walker or Warnock. Turnout at the polls is also critical. Polls show Walker leading among voters over 50. Older voters tend to vote at higher rates than younger voters, meaning Walker is ahead with higher-propensity voters. On the other hand, younger voters seem more energetic than in the recent past. Warnock, who has experience in polling, should keep the youngsters energized for a few more weeks to win.

Finally, in most states, candidates, famous or not, can win with a plurality of voters. Indeed, many celebrities who have won elected office have done so with less than 50% of the vote.

Wrestler Jesse Ventura won 37% of the vote when he was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California in 2003 with 49% of the vote. Comedian Al Franken got less than 42% of the vote when he was elected senator from Minnesota in 2008. And Donald Trump got 46% of the popular vote when he won the presidency in 2016.

The United States’ plurality rule, which allows a candidate who receives the most votes to win, and Electoral College systems have allowed celebrities to win elections even when they have a smaller majority. This does not suggest overwhelming popularity; rather, their victories are made possible by specific electoral rules.

Future Celebrity Candidates

Oz and Walker won’t be the last celebrities to seek public office. Celebrities have the talent and fame to make them viable political candidates. They are at ease in front of the cameras and in public and are adept at creating a personal brand that resonates with the public.

They also benefit from copious media coverage. Free media attention gives them an advantage that non-celebrity candidates don’t have.

But it’s likely that celebrities who had political experience before running for office would perform better than celebrities who are political neophytes.

Schwarzenegger and Franken provide an example of how it can benefit celebrity candidates to be involved in politics before running for office. Schwarzenegger, for example, campaigned for Proposition 49, a law that created after-school educational enrichment programs, before officially jumping into politics.

Franken founded the political action committee Midwest Values ​​and asked his famous friends to donate so he could fund Democratic candidates who would later serve as political allies. This allowed Schwarzenegger and Franken to learn valuable political skills before running for office. Even Trump was an active political donor and celebrity endorser before declaring his candidacy for the presidency.

Oz’s loss and Walker’s current deficit prove that even celebrities have to pay their political dues before running for office.

Richard T. Longoria, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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