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Why Americans Can’t Resist A Celebrity Political Candidate

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Are Americans in favor of the celebrity politician post-Trump? Seems like it, according to recent polling. The consumer research platform Piplsay found earlier this week that 58 percent of respondents said they would like to see one or both of the actors Matthew McConaughey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson launch bids for the Texas governorship and U.S. presidency, respectively. (Of course, the poll isn’t perfect — lumping answers about two different actors’ potential political aspirations under one question is not a good use of polling.) Other actors who people believed might make good future presidents included Angelina Jolie, Will Smith and Tom Hanks.

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Johnson even recently teased a run for higher office, but perhaps it’s McConaughey we should pay closer attention to. The Austin-based actor has said — at least twice — that he’s “seriously considering” a run for Texas governor, though his politics are unclear. And earlier this week, it was reported that at least one more celebrity was considering tossing her hat into the ring: Former reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner was said to be talking with political consultants as she contemplates a run for California governor amid Gov. Gavin Newsom’s likely recall election.

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But how seriously should we take celebrities who express a desire to run for political office? And how likely is it that they actually win, especially if they’re up against seasoned politicians?

Well, if history tells us anything, former President Donald Trump was not an anomaly. Former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who resigned over sexual misconduct allegations in 2018, was a writer and actor on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” for nearly two decades. And Austrian actor Arnold Schwarzenegger used to be an action movie star before he successfully ran for California governor. Former President Ronald Reagan also was an actor

Of course, celebrities don’t always get so lucky. Cynthia Nixon, who starred as lawyer Miranda Hobbes on “Sex and the City” badly lost in her 2018 race against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and I never understood how serious musician Kanye West’s 2020 presidential run was, but we all saw how that turned out (he got about 60,000 votes).

Hollywood candidates may also benefit from intangible traits that have been proven to help sway voters, such as  charisma and physical attractiveness

“Celebrities are a unique group of people who have a particular set of concerns that they have, over the past … wanted to promote or support,” David James Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, whose research focuses on the links between young people’s entertainment and political preferences, told me. “So it just seems like a natural extension of the increasing celebrity involvement in politics to make the next step be to run for office.” 

It’s possible that because of how polarized our politics have become, celebrities are seen as attractive alternatives to politicians, who are widely disliked. Research has also found that wannabe politicians can appeal to the average man if they convey they’re ordinary Americans as opposed to seasoned legislators — hence Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp” throughout his presidency. 

But, ultimately, it remains hard to know what celebrity candidates need to win because we just don’t have much research on it. Not that many celebrities have run for officemost estimates I’ve seen only name a few dozen overall — and only a fraction of that number have made it past their respective primaries and actually been elected, Jackson said. 

What’s working in celebrities’ favor, though, is at least one survey found that neither Republicans or Democrats are opposed to them running. Last summer, The Daily Show and YouGov ran a poll with nearly 2,500 panelists in which each respondent was randomly assigned 30 public figures who appeared in 15 head-to-head matchups. Everyone was asked which they would rather make president. Eighty-one percent of respondents settled on one person: Morgan Freeman. 

In a political environment where money and name recognition are key factors in winning elections, celebrities are positioned to perform well. In our own research of early primary polls, we found that well-known candidates who polled in the double-digits tended to win higher shares of the primary vote in presidential races. Meanwhile, candidates with lower name ID only occasionally advanced to the general election. (Andrew Yang didn’t have high name recognition going into the 2020 Democratic primary, but after a surprising finish behind top-tier candidates, he’s currently reaping the benefits of this in his bid for New York City mayor.) 

What other factors do voters consider when it comes to Hollywood stars? Well, The Daily Show and YouGov survey also found respondents tended to prefer actors over news personalities, athletes and reality TV personalities. And race might also be a factor. Overall, three out of the five top head-to-head matchup winners — Freeman, Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson — were Black. 

Still, because celebrities generally have no previous governing experience, they often lack the skills and background needed to be successful in government. Of course, this isn’t always the case: Reagan became a revered public figure, especially among conservatives, and has influenced a lot of Republican politics since his time in the White House. On the flip side, though, Trump lost allies toward the end of his tenure, faced criticism for how he governed by members of his own party and left office with an approval rating in the low 30s (even though many Republicans still back him). Schwarzenegger was also widely criticized during his time as governor for things like failing to address California’s budget crisis. When he left office, he also left behind a multibillion budget shortfall and ended his term with a near-record low approval of just 23 percent.

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The perception that Hollywood celebrities are too liberal can also backfire. In 2012 and 2016, the Center for Responsive Politics found that individuals and firms in the television, movie and music industries overwhelmingly gave campaign cash to Democrats over Republicans. (Conservatives have also lambasted celebrities for making their political opinions part of their overall brand.) “Hollywood is perceived as being to the left of the public and they lead such different lives from the public that their experiences may not be seen as relevant to the typical voters,” Jackson told me. 

Even though public opinion may be broadly in celebrities’ favor, it’s hard to know how they’d fare in elections — or afterwards. McConaughey, for example, depending on what primary he chose to run in, would likely face steep odds against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott, who is sitting on millions of dollars ahead of 2022. And Newsom will probably survive the recall election in ultra-blue California, so a high-profile Republican like Jenner likely doesn’t stand a chance. That doesn’t mean political outsiders won’t still see an opportunity to enter politics, though. 

Other polling bites

  • This is the second week of witness testimony in the murder trial for Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. Floyd later died in police custody. Over the summer, protests reached a fever pitch, with many Americans calling for policing reform. Recent polling shows that many Americans have strong opinions about Chauvin’s fate. The latest Economist/YouGov poll found that a majority of Americans (57 percent) believe Chauvin should be found guilty — though we’ve previously noted why that might be unlikely — versus 18 percent who said he should not be. Although another 25 percent said they were not sure,. Three other former officers involved in Floyd’s death and arrest will face trial at a later date.
  • Nearly 100 days after thousands of Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it looks like many Republicans still don’t think Trump is to blame for how the events of Jan. 6 went down. Only 11 percent of Republicans “strongly agree” with the statement that Trump is “at least partly to blame” for the riots, essentially unchanged from when NBC News asked in January. About 50 percent of Republicans also said they believed the people who stormed the Capitol were mostly peaceful, law-abiding citizens, according to a poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos.
  • As President Biden touts his administration’s vaccine rollout — earlier this week, Biden moved the deadline for all U.S. adults to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine from May 1 to April 19 — a new Gallup poll shows American’s concerns about catching the virus are at an all-time low. According to the survey, 35 percent of U.S. adults are very or somewhat concerned about catching COVID-19, the lowest point in Gallup’s trend since last April. Worry about contracting the novel coronavirus has significantly dropped among older Americans, who were among the first in line to get vaccinated in many states, the poll notes. And a majority of Americans said they believed the COVID-19 situation in the country is improving. 
  • Vaccine passports have emerged as the latest talking point among Republican politicians, with the governors of both Texas and Florida signing executive orders banning the use of such documents in their respective states. But polling shows that most adults are in favor of some sort of digital vaccine passports — as long as they’re not mandatory. A new Morning Consult survey found that 63 percent of adults support making digital vaccination certification available, compared to 46 percent who would be in favor of requiring vaccinated people to carry some sort of digital certification. Republicans, more than Democrats and independent voters, were more likely to express concerns about privacy, the poll found.
  • A new Gallup poll shows the biggest gap in party affiliation since 2012, with 49 percent of U.S. adults saying they identify with the Democratic Party or as independents who lean Democratic, versus 40 percent who identified as Republican or lean Republican. Of course, Democrats have certain things working in their favor currently, like Biden’s popular American Rescue Plan and his relatively steady approval rating. But the poll also found that, as in most non-election years, more people are now identifying as independents (44 percent now versus 38 percent in the last quarter of 2020). That change in partisan allegiances, Gallup found, has mostly impacted Republicans.  

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 53.2 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 39.9 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of 13.3 points). At this time last week, 54.0 percent approved and 39.6 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of +14.4 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 53.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 40.2 percent, for a net approval rating of +13 points.

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  1. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.