A Little Celebritician History

Donald Trump is unique. Let's start off with that. He's an outsider to the political process, he's got name recognition other candidates would die for, and he makes his own rules out on the campaign trail. He is (to use a word I coined a while back) a "celebritician" -- a celebrity who decided he'd become a politician. This horrifies many, mostly because he's been so successful (so far). But he's certainly not the first celebrity to toss his hat into the political ring, although he is the first big one to emerge on the Republican side in a while (ever since the days of Senator Fred Thompson, by my reckoning). But since each celebritician is unique, can anything be learned from the past history of quixotic celebrity political campaigns?

I've been fascinated by the overlap of celebrity and politics for years, I have to admit. In fact, I initially wrote about it nine years ago, right in the midst of a California race which ended up re-electing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. I provided a list of celebrity candidates and officeholders stretching back to the 1940s, and concluded that Republicans were far more successful at making the leap from acting to political office. Since that time, Democrats have actually evened the score quite a bit (think: Senator Al Franken), which I wrote about last year, while applauding Clay Aiken for making a longshot bid for a House seat. But I think the two most interesting cases to compare to Donald Trump's run are California's initial election of "The Governator" and Minnesota's election of Governor Jesse Ventura.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's elevation to leading one of the bluest states in the country came about in the oddest political campaign I've ever seen in America. I say this not for the number of people on the ballot (some of them quite odd indeed), but rather for the length of the campaign. In essence, California held a European-style election. The entire contest was roughly two months long. That was it, from beginning to end. Two months. Compare this to the fact that the political world is now already aflame with the presidential contest, which won't actually happen for over fourteen months. The shortness of the California campaign was a result of it also being a recall election, which wound up booting Democrat Gray Davis from office. If Davis had won the recall, all the votes for governor would have been tossed out, and he would have finished out his term.

Instead, due to the relative ease in getting on the ballot, over 130 people filed papers to run. Not everyone followed through and made it on the ballot (Don "Father Guido Sarducci" Novello failed to complete his paperwork, for instance). But an enormous number of people did. Arianna Huffington came in fifth place. Larry Flynt came in seventh place. But Arnold won handily, and went on (to many California liberals' shame) to be overwhelmingly re-elected, as well.

Schwarzenegger was hit, during his short initial campaign, for his attitudes and actions towards women. This was long before the love-child story, but many other stories emerged of actresses and others in Hollywood accusing him of what was basically sexual assault (for a while, he was even called "The Gropenator"). His answer to the accusations was that if he got elected, he'd immediately have himself investigated. No, seriously. And then he went on to win.

Schwarzenegger benefited from the surreal nature of the recall election. Having over 100 candidates meant many voters were already treating the whole thing as a joke. Schwarzenegger had better name recognition than anyone, and he was helped by the fact that several prominent politicians (from both parties) decided to sit the race out. If Dianne Feinstein had run, just to name one example, the outcome might have been different. Arnold also definitely got what might be called the "Beavis and Butthead" vote ("Huh huh... that Terminator guy's on the ballot!" "Yeah, I'm going to vote for HIM! Heh heh... Future killer robots rule!").

Is any of this sounding familiar? A ballot jam-packed with other names, someone with the biggest name recognition out there and a lot of people voting who might not make the effort if a celebrity candidate weren't on the ballot. Also, the ability to brush off attacks like water off a duck's back. Think this won't be enough? Again, Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected in a very blue state. These things can be unpredictable.

Which brings us to our second comparison. Jesse Ventura shocked the political world first by running as a third-party candidate (he used H. Ross Perot's old party apparatus) for Minnesota governor, and then by actually winning. He won, importantly, with only 37 percent of the vote. That's all it took, as the Republican and the Democrat candidates split most of the remaining votes. Ventura had been a professional wrestler, a Hollywood actor (for a while there, it seemed as if everyone who had been in The Predator was going to become governor somewhere), and a radio personality. That last one is important, because he already had a fairly large Minnesota audience when he decided to toss his hat in the ring.

The biggest thing worth noting from Ventura's rise to power, though, was that almost nobody predicted the outcome. He wasn't polling anywhere near the lead, so most of the Minnesota political world tended to discount the possibility that Ventura would actually win. The voters, however, had the final say. So Ventura became governor with a little over one-third the votes.

This comparison, obviously, will be made much later, if Donald Trump follows through on his threat to run a third-party presidential campaign. If both the Democrats and the Republicans nominate fairly unexciting candidates (which is entirely possible, this year), then there will indeed be an opening for someone who is all excitement, all the time. And if there are three fairly strong candidates in a race, one of them can actually win with a surprisingly small percentage of the vote.

Of course, direct parallels can rarely be made in politics, especially when talking about celebriticians. Ronald Reagan is not Al Franken, and both bear little resemblance to either Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Each case is unique, because each entered politics with a rather unique following. So I certainly am not suggesting that Donald Trump is going to follow in the footsteps of either Schwarzenegger or Ventura. Whatever happens, Trump will definitely chart his own course, and it'll be different from any seen previously. That's about all you can say with absolute certainty.

However, the victories of both Schwarzenegger and Ventura do have one very important lesson to teach, one that so far is mostly being ignored by most everyone in the political world. The lesson might be phrased: "Strange things happen when the political and entertainment worlds collide." Not just strange things, but downright unexpected things. Outcomes nobody in their right mind can believe -- right up until they happen. Celebrities, unlike career politicians, almost always make up their own rules during the campaign. They "defy political gravity" by brushing off scandalous actions or statements that would have destroyed any career politician (Ronald Reagan was called the "Teflon President," for those who don't remember the 1980s, because "nothing stuck to him."). Celebriticians usually arrive with their own built-in audience -- supporters for whom normal political considerations don't even apply. This audience can skew polls to the point where the political world doesn't even see the wave approaching.

So everyone now dismissing Donald Trump out of hand should read this article with caution. "He'll fade... it's inevitable" is the current political conventional wisdom inside the Beltway, from both liberals and conservatives alike. But Trump may not fade. He might even win, either the Republican nomination or as an independent in the general election. Stranger things have happened, when politics and show-biz interact. Trump could indeed fade, of course, and the conventional wisdom could turn out to be right. But then again, California and Minnesota -- both very blue states -- elected Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. So don't count those chickens quite yet. Trump may go further than anyone now is even imagining. Stranger things have happened, and not all that long ago.

 

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