Celebrity in Chief? How star power plays into American politics

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He may not be very popular with NBC or Univision, Macy’s, Miss USA, the PGA or the Latino community, but Donald Trump still has the ear, and according to a few polls, the vote of some Americans.

Does that mean he would make a good president? The verdict’s still out. But they at least most know who he is, separating him from the army of other Republican candidates.

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“Celebrity candidates often do well in early polling… because they’re well known and they are provocative in their public statements,” said Darrel West, a political commentator with the Brookings Institution. “A lot of Americans are disillusioned with the political process, and they like celebrities who talk tough about a range of different issues.”

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It’s another perk of ‘celebrity status’ in the U.S.

The country has historically proven that stars at the box office can become stars at the ballot box. Sonny Bono, of Sonny and Cher fame, was the mayor of Palm Springs, California before he was elected to Congress. Al Franken, a Saturday Night Live cast member and talk show host, was elected to the Senate in 2008. The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California for two terms.

But perhaps the most impressive example of a transition from Hollywood to politics is Ronald Regan. After appearing in dozens of movies, he became Governor of California and then occupied the White House from 1981 until 1989.

“It may be surprising, with what a celebrity-oriented culture this is, that we haven’t had an awful lot more,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University.

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A Hollywood resume, he said, can make you a stellar campaigner.

“If you’ve been an actor all your life, you’ve been doing the kinds of things that will come in really handy when you’re running for office. Talking to strangers and acting like you care, playing roles, hitting your mark, being able to speak in a compelling manner – celebrities have the advantage.”

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They also get the attention and, when they speak, mics and cameras are already in place. Not to mention, they have access to more money than the average political candidate.

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But the bright spotlight on celebrity campaigners comes with pitfalls. They can be scrutinized far more than other candidates.

Their experience in the political arena may be questioned more; their dirty laundry aired more frequently, the need to prove themselves higher.

“Celebrities still have to meet the threshold of seriousness,” said West. “People still have to be able to envision them as actually doing the job.”

That can certainly be a challenge if you, let’s say, starred in Kindergarten Cop or if your famous catchphrase is “You’re Fired.”

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Electing a celebrity can be a gamble for the American public too. Even though the name recognition might get them a vote, “there certainly are risks for American politics,” said West. “You can get people who are unqualified or who aren’t able to appeal to mainstream audiences.”

In Canada, the phenomenon of stars on Parliament Hill is far less common.

But, it may be something political parties or the public are seeking out.

“The whole role of Justin Trudeau in Canadian politics at the moment is bringing a celebrity culture that has arguably not been there, since his father was prime minister,” Memorial University political science professor Alex Marland.

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“There’s no question in my mind that Justin Trudeau is treated as a celebrity both within the Liberal Party, but as well by others. That like everything brings good things and bad things,” he told Global News. “A lot of the reason why Justin Trudeau got to where he is, as quickly as he did, is because of his brand recognition.”

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Still, he’s not succeeding in the polls the way Trump is seemingly able to keep afloat.

After making controversial comments about Mexicans, Trumps numbers surged: some national polls showing a nine per cent increase in support. In contrast, a recent Angus Reid poll asking respondents who would make the best prime minister – Trudeau received 18 per cent of the vote, a significant decline compared to earlier polls.

Is there potential for “celebrity” to succeed in 2016? Trump said he will win the Latino vote and that leading GOP candidate Jeb Bush will not lead Americans to the “promise land.” but, Thompson questioned the weight of his words. “In many ways, Donald Trump, in spite of these polls, I think is kind of a novelty act now I’ll eat my words if he ends up winning the primary.” And a lot can change in the next few months.


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