Politics

02.06.14

Can B-List Hollywood Stars Shine in Washington?

Clay Aiken got a lot of votes on ‘American Idol,’ but whether this sweet-faced, liberal-leaning crooner can beat a GOP incumbent for Congress remains a mystery worth tuning in for.

Brace yourself, Claymates! Your beloved American Idol (runner-up) and Celebrity Apprentice (runner-up) has found his next great reality TV challenge: running for Congress in his home state of North Carolina. On February 5, the sweet-as-pie singer/actor/activist released an aim-for-the-tear-ducts announcement video that shares a bit about his not-so-idyllic pre-Idol days (dad was an abusive drunk; young Clay and his mom slept on a neighbor’s living room floor for eight months) by way of explaining why he now feels moved to challenge Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers. (In a nutshell: She screwed struggling North Carolinians by backing sequestration and the shutdown.)

Aiken’s boyish charms notwithstanding, it promises to be an uphill fight. Post 2010, the once-purplish second district was redrawn to be solidly red. (Romney pulled 58 percent of the vote there in 2012.) If you think Simon Cowell can be brutal, just wait until the GOP starts slinging mud and lobbing bombs to protect one of its own in this southern enclave it’s worked so diligently to hold on to.

But regardless of who wins, Aiken’s candidacy guarantees more money, more sizzle, and way more coverage than the district could otherwise have dreamed of, because, gosh darn it, celebrity pols are just so much fun for journalists, political operatives, and garden-variety voters alike.

Whatever the particular issues under debate, we all get to stand around gawking at the sight of a bona fide famous person—be it Arnold Schwarzenegger or Heath Shuler or Ben Jones (the incomparable Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard)—wading through the dehumanizing cesspool of our electoral process. Some prove surprisingly adept at it (Al Franken, Jesse Ventura, the Gipper…). Others, not so much (Shirley Temple, country star Roy Acuff, NASCAR great Richard Petty …). And some you simply cannot wrap your mind around (Jerry Springer, porn stars Stormy Daniels and Mary Carey, Victoria Jackson, the Donald…)

So what exactly makes for a good celebrity pol? Perusing the rolls of past candidates, you can make out some vague trends. A-list authors don’t fare especially well. (Upton Sinclair, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal failed in all of their various electoral endeavors.) Athletes, by contrast, seem to over-perform. (Shuler, Steve Largent, Jack Kemp, J.C. Watts, Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, Tom McMillen, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell…) Actors are a mixed bag. (Yes to Gopher from The Love Boat; no to The Beverly Hillbillies’s Miss Hathaway.) Same for the newest breed of celeb, reality TV stars. In 2010, three reality alums ran for congress: Suriya Yalamanchili (The Apprentice) in Ohio, Kevin Powell (The Real World, New York) in New York, and Sean Duffy (The Real World, Boston) in Wisconsin. Only Duffy, the sole Republican in the bunch, made it to Capitol Hill.

Whatever their claims to fame, celebrity candidates face a handful of common advantages and hurdles, observes Darrell M. West, author of the book Celebrity Politics and VP of Political Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “The crucial ingredients for celebrity politics are money, media, and message,” says West. With the first two, he observes, celebs have a built-in edge. “They can either put their own money in, or they have access to rich friends. And getting media coverage is tremendously easy.”

Message is much trickier, though: “The biggest hurdle is getting taken seriously,” says West. “When someone from outside the political process runs for Congress, you have to meet the threshold that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re not doing this just to get publicity for yourself.” For celebrities, the suspicion that it’s all just a stunt to stay in the public eye runs especially—and understandably—high. West points to Trump as “Exhibit A” in the publicity-slut category. (My term of endearment, not his.) “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to run for Congress,” says West. “But you have to be able to answer questions about tax policy and foreign policy. It’s not that your answers have to be very detailed, but if you’re an airhead, it’s not going to cut it.”

If you think Simon Cowell can be brutal, just wait until the GOP starts slinging mud and lobbing bombs to protect one of its own…

Name recognition is another obvious upside to celebrity, says David J. Jackson, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University who specializes in the relationship between politics and popular culture. “However, how that name recognition is developed can be a problem,” he adds, pointing to Jerry Springer’s flirtations with returning to the political arena. (Before his reign as the king of trash TV, Springer was mayor of Cincinnati.) “No doubt Jerry Springer had 100 percent name recognition statewide from his show, but that didn’t exactly bring a lot of credibility and respect along with it.”   

Despite their fame and fortune, celebrity candidates also tend to possess that much-coveted political intangible: the ability to connect with regular voters.  “Most celebrities relate to voters very easily because they’re used to dealing with fans,” says West. “They are used to being the center of attention. Most of them have personalities that do very well on the campaign trail.”

Indeed, for all of the mocking that celebrity candidates often endure—from the media, from the opposition, from snooty political insiders—they are actually pretty successful. “Most celebrities who run, win,” says West.  “They have a surprisingly high success rate because of political cynicism.” Almost invariably, celebrity candidates—including Aiken—pitch themselves as political outsiders looking to fix a broken system, observes West. “The fact that they are coming from outside the political process gives them a lot of credibility with ordinary voters who are disillusioned with politicians.”

On the great spectrum of celebrity pols ranging from earnest wonks (a la Bill Bradley) to self-aggrandizing ass-clowns (looking at you, Donald), Aiken falls on the more serious—and certainly more earnest—end. Before he was an Idol contestant, he was a special ed teacher. Post-Idol, he started a foundation, The National Inclusion Project, that seeks to “bridge the gap that exists between young people with disabilities and the world around them.” In 2004, he was named an ambassador for UNICEF. In 2006, he was appointed by George W. Bush to serve on the Presidential Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. None of which guarantees that the voters of North Carolina’s conservative second district will rush to embrace the openly gay Democratic pop star, but at least it gives him something to talk about beyond what Trump’s hair looks like up close.

Of course, if Aiken does prove to have sufficient crossover appeal to unseat Ellmers, he could be in for an even ruder awakening once he hits Washington. Observes West, “Most celebrities are much better at campaigning than they are at governing.”