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Is Celebrities Running For President A Thing Now?

In this week’s politics chat, we discuss whether President Trump’s election changed our understanding of what traits are valuable in winning the White House. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome all. For today’s chat, we’re tackling this question: Can anyone run for president?

This comes off a Washington Post story that reported “presidential buzz seems to be building around an unusually large and varied group of Democrats and famous names from outside of politics — a parlor game that includes pretty much every current Democratic senator and governor, mayors and House members, barons of the business world and, of course, the occasional wild-card celebrity.”

We’ve heard The Rock, Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah floated.

The idea seems to be that Trump showed that nontraditional candidates can win, and with his approval ratings so low, there’s a lot of interest.

So before we get to some of these names, let’s talk about that idea — is it sound to conclude from the 2016 election that traditional credentials for a White House run — holding high political office or high military office, for example — matter less than we thought?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I will take this moment, early in the chat, to try to get my personal traffic numbers up and suggest people read the FiveThirtyEight version of this idea.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Maybe Trump’s election does change things a little — Trump had virtually nothing to qualify him for the office so why can’t any old schmo run? — but there’s also the flip side of this, which is that Americans might, by the end of four years of Trump, want someone who exhibits a modicum of experience.

perry: Clare said that very well. Trump won with no experience. Is he showing experience matters by being inept?

clare.malone: I still think that on the Democratic side, you look at the candidate potential — a lot of the ones that I actually think have legs — i.e., bases of support — are older, experienced pols: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, etc.

micah: So maybe it’s true that experience matters less than we thought. But now Trump’s problems are making it matter more?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Lurker Nate agrees with Clare and Perry. Usually, you become the next president by implicitly or explicitly arguing that you counteract the flaws of the previous president.

micah: GET OUT, NATE!

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Folks, Nate is not supposed to be here.

He cannot help himself because he is a junkie. Seek help, Nate. Seek help.

clare.malone: Nate, are you on a plane?

natesilver: I’m stuck on a plane and I’ve already watched all their episodes of “Portlandia.”

micah: Enough is enough. I have had it with these motherfucking Nates on this motherfucking plane!

harry: There’s a difference between having experience and being an outsider. Trump had no experience and was an outsider. Sanders is someone who has plenty of experience, but most people would probably still deem him an outsider.

perry: Is it possible voters will want someone who has the posture of an outsider but has some experience?

Harry beat me to that by a few seconds.

harry: When we say whether “someone who counteracts Trump’s flaws,” do we mean someone with experience or an insider? I don’t know if “insiderism” will be prized in 2020, but experience may be.

micah: So yeah, maybe voters will disentangle those two things? Or will they want an experienced insider to draw the sharpest possible contrast with Trump? (Assuming Trump is about as unpopular in 2020 as he is now.)

clare.malone: Hm.

Maybe you want someone who can still posture as being against the system, but working from the inside? Trump tried to say that he was the person for that — “I alone can fix it”– but in some ways, that was all wrong, because he’s never really been on the inside of the global elite. New York real estate wealth is actually rather parochial, even when you license your name elsewhere.

perry: Warren/Sanders are kind of outsiders in a certain way. Former Vice President Joe Biden is an insider. Who was the last real insider president? George H.W. Bush? Hillary Clinton lost. So did John Kerry. So did John McCain. I’m not saying this is a trend, but I’m just thinking out loud here.

clare.malone: Yeah.

George H.W. Bush is interesting. Insidery up the wazoo — CIA director!

perry: Party chairman, veep.

clare.malone: Coming on the heels of a verrrry popular president, though.

harry: I guess you could argue Richard Nixon was more an insider? But very few.

clare.malone: You could argue people were voting for a third Reagan term with the elder Bush.

natesilver: Lurker Nate advises chatters to consider whether George W. Bush, the son of a president, should also be considered an insider.

perry: I thought about him. But he kind of ran as an outsider.

clare.malone: But, Nate, that’s not how he sold himself. Yeah, what Perry said.

perry: But yes, George W. Bush was hardly a radical shift.

harry: I would say Al Gore was definitely seen as the status quo in that election. Regardless how they were viewed in the primary.

perry: Short answer: I don’t know. Will voters value real experience, like what Biden has, after Trump? Maybe?

micah: OK, so maybe the sweet spot is what Clare noted: Outsider sheen, insider experience.

perry: This is an important question.

micah: So that would argue Warren over Biden, Perry.

perry: I think an outsider/insider candidate is great, if you have a good one. I wonder if a real insider can win now. Like Biden really, really knows the Hill, the White House. Is that valued now, more than in 1988 or 2008 or 2016?

micah: Harry, we got any polling on any of this?

clare.malone: At a certain point, does the American public grow suspicious of a man who has been running for president for the past 20 years?

perry: But he’s so authentic, Clare.

clare.malone: I know Biden is popular as a Democrat, but doesn’t this bald ambition in a man in his 70s wear thin?

perry: I’m kidding, mostly.

clare.malone: Hah. It’s fascinating to me.

harry: The fascination with Biden is interesting to me, too. Here’s a guy who has declared he is running for president twice. He failed bigly both those times. Then he sort of ran in the invisible primary in 2016 and got out. Biden is a fairly moderate guy in a party arguably moving left. Oh and he is from a state that is the home of corporations.

perry: But are we concluding people don’t want a real outsider?

clare.malone: I don’t think Democrats do.

perry: Zuck, Oprah, The Rock? I’m not sure that is true.

micah: I think they want outsider packaging, right?

harry: I can say a majority of Democrats don’t want Oprah to run. Of course, that could change if she ever declared.

clare.malone: The Democratic base seems like it has more of a palate for outsider packaging with a squishy insider filling.

perry: Clare, why are Democrats different than Republicans on this? I think you’re right, but I’m not sure why.

clare.malone: In part, because they’re moved by the incompetence of the Trump White House. There’s this sense, I think, that Trump has brought chaos to the institutions people were so used to having work smoothly. And perhaps that’s given people some pause about how much they need government to run relatively well.

natesilver: A candidate with political experience, in good-lookin’ outsider packaging? Lurker Nate thinks this is a job for … Martin O’Malley.

clare.malone: O’Malley is … not good at talking.

perry: Does this at all get into the Democrats being the party of technocrats/wonks, which I think is one of their weaknesses? Going to Yale/Harvard is maybe overvalued among Democrats. (I would like to thank the Yale admissions office for whatever post-graduate success I’ve had, right here, in case they are reading this chat.)

clare.malone: Well, this is why Bill Clinton worked — he was marrying the wonkiness with authenticity that was supposed to speak to the historical working-class roots of the party. He was Ivy League but with a drawl.

And he was the last Democrat to win the South. I mean, that’s changed for a host of reasons, but…

harry: Lurker Nate needs to watch more episodes of “Portlandia” … I thought this survey from Public Policy Polling was interesting. Not so much for the absolute values, but how well the Democrats did against Trump relative to one another. Biden and Sanders did equally well, pretty much. So did Sens. Cory Booker and Al Franken. Meanwhile, the Rock did the worst. If nothing else, that indicates that the want for a true outsider isn’t clear. At least not yet. (Early polling only gets us so far.)

micah: Here’s what the picture was in 2015, pre-Trump, according to Pew:

perry: So the voters picked a candidate, and then decided they liked that candidate’s attributes.

clare.malone: Franken.

Is.

Interesting.

perry: I keep floating him.

clare.malone: I like the idea.

perry: And people keep saying I am crazy. But he seems of the moment to me.

micah: Yeah, Perry — I think voters decide which candidate they like then prioritize that candidate’s attributes.

clare.malone: Franken has charm. Franken is an outsider.

micah: I’m all aboard the Franken bandwagon.

clare.malone: Franken is from the Midwest.

perry: He seems like an outsider, and he seems very smart.

clare.malone: Franken did a little blow, which seems to now be a presidential requirement.

perry: lol

clare.malone: Why wasn’t Kirsten Gillibrand included in the poll?

micah: Won’t Democrats not want to nominate a white man? Or the opposite?

clare.malone: Yeah. Actually, why the hell aren’t they polling any woman besides Warren? I call bullshit, PPP.

perry: Let’s be honest, because of Hillary Clinton. And I think that’s unfair.

clare.malone: It’s actually massively irritating. Is Warren the only woman who Democrats will now consider because she’s older but the (perceived) complete political opposite of Clinton?

perry: I don’t think it’s Democrats. I think we are talking pollsters/experts, too.

Sen. Kamala Harris does not fall into this, either.

clare.malone: THE ROCK was included over female senators!

natesilver: The polling isn’t going to be meaningful for anyone who lacks decent name recognition now.

micah: Clare, I’m with you, but don’t you dare demean the Rock.

perry: The Center for American Progress had an event with a bunch of 2020 potentials speaking: Booker, Harris, Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Chris Murphy.

micah: OK, but let’s zoom out: We seem to think that Democrats will want someone who seems competent in Washington but maybe with an outsider sheen … how will gender and race get weighed?

harry: I think it’s going to be weighted tremendously.

micah: But which way? …

perry: I think negatively. Others may disagree.

micah: I could see it going both ways: The system is rigged toward white men. But Democratic voters are young and diverse and, I imagine, prize diversity more than the country overall does.

clare.malone: I’m honestly 50-50. I think it’s more likely to be a man, but on race, I’m not sure. I could see it being to their advantage to have a minority to recapture Obama momentum and turnout.

micah: But Clinton didn’t get a similar bump among women, did she?

harry: The gender gap was larger than at any point in recent history. The polling on that gap stayed steady through Election Day, but Clinton ended up doing worse overall.

clare.malone: Yeah, was going to say same as Harry. She won women overall by a lot but not white ones.

micah: So like, Democrats could theoretically nominate Cory Booker and not get Obama-level black turnout. They could nominate Elizabeth Warren and not win women by decisive margins.

perry: Right.

How do you see Democrats winning in 2020, mainly, through 1) greater minority turnout; 2) more college-educated whites, or 3) winning back Obama-Trump voters. The people who think No. 3 tend to be pushing white guys, even if Obama himself is not white of course

clare.malone: Nos. 1 or 2 seem better bets for Democrats. Trump voters may be more loyal and hard to break from their new world view.

perry: Right, which to me means any of these people could win, but I would not plan my strategy around Sherrod Brown winning Obama-Trump voters.

micah: Are Obama-Trump voters the same as Reluctant Trump voters? Or are those different groups?

clare.malone: Different groups.

harry: Yeah different, Micah. The reluctant Trump voters were better educated than the Obama-Trump voters.

micah: Let’s take our original question from the other side: The criteria that we thought was valuable to become president — again, political or military experience — we thought was valuable because it was valued by “The Party” — elected officials, political operatives, donors, etc. This is “The Party Decides” theory, that these people had huge sway over who got the nomination.

So, Trump perhaps proved that those traits aren’t as valuable as we thought. Or, maybe he proved that the party doesn’t decide? Or, has less influence than we thought?

harry: OK, let’s have a conversation, Micah.

micah: That’s generally the idea here, Harry.

clare.malone: Now now.

micah: (The Micah-Harry tiff continues.)

harry: Clinton used the party to pretty much squash Sanders’s hopes of winning the nomination. She used Harry Reid in Nevada to win those caucuses. She used James Clyburn in South Carolina to win that primary. And away she went. Not only that but she got Biden not to enter the race.

In other words, it’s not clear to me that “the party decides” is broken on that side of the aisle.

natesilver: The Party Decides Under Certain Conditions And Doesn’t Decide Under Other Conditions And There’s No Reliable Way To Tell In Advance Which Is Which.

perry: I think I agree with that. Alternatively, is the party weak on Democratic side, too?

harry: I would argue that “the party decides” might still work when there is a clear consensus of who the party wants.

clare.malone: So, that’s also interesting: If the party doesn’t decide, what force or who does?

micah: Voters!

clare.malone: You know what I mean, Micah. — What’s the special sauce that gets these nonparty-approved people to the top of the game? Media coverage that’s favorable? Name recognition? Is there something that we can say that unifies them? Just being outsiders?

micah: I think in modern politics you need outsider-y charisma That’s a prerequisite in TV politics.

perry: Can we tell who is charismatic beforehand? I covered Congress for years, and Sanders never seemed charismatic to me.

natesilver: Lurker Nate think media coverage important! Trump go on TV a lot! Maybe that good practice for candidate job!

micah: Lurker Nate should be a permanent part of these chats, replacing regular Nate.

clare.malone: Sanders has the internet to thank for being considered “charming.”

harry: Was Sanders really charismatic? I don’t think he was on television anyway.

clare.malone: Up close, he’s just kinda abrasive. But watching clips of him from a podium, he’s fired up and has cool hair.

perry: Right.

micah: Maybe charismatic isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean.

perry: Who are we counting as successful in this era? Just the elected presidents?

micah: I guess, just look at everyone elected since Ronald Reagan? George H.W. Bush is the exception that proves the rule.

perry: Neither Bush was charismatic in any real way.

harry: The latter Bush had some charm.

perry: The second Bush was the ultimate party-decides person. The party literally picked him.

micah: Didn’t the later Bush win the “I’d have a beer with that person” race?

harry: That isn’t the same as charismatic.

clare.malone: My grandmother thought George W. Bush was handsome. Does that count? I think that’s why she voted for him.

perry: Mitt Romney is very handsome, right?

micah: But Romney was wooden.

perry: I have no idea what charismatic means, is my point.

micah: Literally, he’s made of wood. Fun fact.

Charismatic is the wrong word.

perry: Is Warren charismatic?

micah: How about … “marketability”?

clare.malone: Zeitgeist-y. That’s what it is.

perry: I like Clare’s word.

clare.malone: People who capture the zeitgeist of the moment, and that is Sanders/Warren right now.

perry: Right. Of the moment.

micah: That seems circular to me.

perry: I feel like the moment chose Obama in 2008 and maybe would not have at any other time. Clare was saying the moment is Warren/Sanders. Does everyone agree with that?

harry: I don’t know whose moment it is. Or whose it might be.

micah: Too early to say.

clare.malone: “@natesilver is typing”

natesilver: Lurker Nate think that energy on left of party!

perry: Ezra Klein at Vox wrote a piece saying the moment might be angry/fiery populist. Which I think is an interesting distinction — like you have to be really mad at Trump. Not Booker- or Biden-level mad, but extra mad.

harry: Yeah, the energy is for a type of politician, not for an ideology. Someone who is really mad at Trump. Remember the “energy” was with Howard Dean in 2004. Dean was not really a lefty during his time in Vermont, but he was very anti-Bush.

perry: Right. That’s what I meant.

micah: OK, to wrap up …

As 2020 approaches, should we have a more open mind as to who is a viable candidate? Should we take Oprah, The Rock, Zuckerberg, etc., seriously? And if the answer is yes, should we take them seriously at the same level as a Biden or a Warren? Or should we take them seriously but still rate their lack of experience as a hindrance?

Lurker Nate, you can weigh in here. Nate, you can too, if you want.

clare.malone: This is the wrap-up? It’s, like, 10 parts!

micah: lol.

clare.malone: No, I don’t think we should take The Rock, Zuck or Oprah seriously. Maybe Zuck a little because he seems to take himself seriously on this but…

natesilver: OK delurking 👻

clare.malone: I just find it really hard to believe that these people actually do exploratory committees, or that Democrats actually say, “Yeah, let’s back these celebs over actual party workhorses.”

harry: We should be more open, but realize that Trump was someone who had run for president before (2000) and had some voice within the party. Someone like The Rock would be completely out of left field. We should take anyone who has no real connection with the party with at least some skepticism but recognize that anything in politics is possible.

clare.malone: We are not even sure The Rock is a Democrat.

perry: Yes, take the celebs seriously. Donald. Trump. Is. President. No, not as seriously as Warren/Biden. Yes, lack of experience is an impediment, because 1) Trump has been bad at governing, and 2) Democrats are a wonky party. I would take a Howard Schultz type kind of seriously, since he already kind of acts like a Democratic presidential candidate. (Wonky, cautious.) Maybe less Mark Cuban/The Rock. I would not bet against Oprah or Michelle Obama achieving anything they wanted to. But they already have fame and wealth.

clare.malone: Michelle Obama will not run for office. Oprah is too rich and sane to want to.

natesilver: 1) We should have a more open mind relative to our priors from four years ago, but I’m not sure whether we’re overcorrecting or undercorrecting now. 2) Sure, take Zuck seriously. He’s doing some presidential candidate-y things. 3) Biden, Warren, Sanders and (gulp) Hillary Clinton are still the four biggest names in the Democratic Party. Their decisions to run or not run will set everything else in motion. 4) Nontraditional candidates will probably run a lot more than they used to, at least for a cycle or two, but I don’t think we have a lot of evidence either way for how likely they are to succeed.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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