"Arnold Schwarzenegger and Celebrity Politics"

by Darrell M. West

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entry into the California gubernatorial campaign is but the latest example of celebrity politics. In running for major office, the "Terminator" joins entertainers George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, and Sonny Bono in seeking elective office in the Golden State. Murphy was elected United States Senator, while Reagan became governor (and later president) and Bono served in the Congress.

In this report, I examine the case of celebrities running for public office. Why are celebrities entering the world of politics? What affects whether they win and how well they run as political candidates? How do these individuals perform in office when they win?

By looking at the case of Schwarzenegger, I demonstrate why celebrities often make good candidates, but mixed office-holders. Some of the very qualities that make them appealing to voters creates difficulties in the governing process. I discuss these aspects of celebrity politics through the example of California politics.

Why Celebrities Run?

There are a number of factors that have made it possible for celebrities to run for elective office. One key aspect of celebrity politics in the post-World War II period has been the emergence of television and its enormous ramifications for the political process.

Prior to 1960, when television emerged as a major communications avenue, most people got their public affairs information from newspapers. In 1959, for example, more people indicated they received most of their information from newspapers and found the printed press to be more believable than television. Within ten years, though, these numbers would become reversed. Ever since that time, more people have tuned into television and found it to be a believable source compared to newspapers.

The television era advantages celebrities because these individuals are adept at using the medium, are photogenic, and are very good at attracting media coverage. As the culture has moved toward the glorification of celebrities and the line between Hollywood and Washington has become blurred, celebrities make for great copy and receive a great deal of coverage when they enter into the political realm.

In addition, celebrities are perfectly matched for the contemporary political era because of their wealth and fundraising capacity. With the high cost of political races and the large amount of money required to broadcast ads, fundraising is vital to electoral success.

With the large amount of money required to contest campaigns, it is little wonder that celebrities have gained clout in the political system. Simply by dint of their star appeal, celebrities have the name recognition and favorable image that allows them to raise money. This combination of fame, glamour, and excitement gives celebrities the opportunity to become successful candidates.

Celebrities furthermore are advantaged because of the weakness of political parties. It used to be that those who wanted to seek elective office had to serve lengthy apprencticeships in lower positions before they could run for governor, Congress, or the Senate.

Now, candidates from outside the world of politics who are famous, adept at fundraising, and able to attract media coverage can leap-frog career politicians and run for coveted office. They do not have to wait years serving on city councils or in state legislatures to get a chance to be governor.

Finally, celebrities make good candidates because of the "white knight" phenomenon. In an era of extensive citizen cynicism about conventional politicians, voters often see celebrities as white knights from outside the political process who are too rich to be bought and thereby deserving of trust from the electorate. This gives celebrities a kind of credibility that normal politicians do not have.

What Affects Celebrity Prospects?

Being famous does not guarantee victory as seen by the failure of John Glenn’s presidential bid, Oliver North’s unsuccessful Senate candidacy, and Bill Bradley’s inability to wrestle the Democratic nomination away from Al Gore. Political success requires qualities beyond a famous name and celebrity background.

Among the factors that affect how well a celebrity will do in the political process is their communications ability, political shrewdness, and ability to avoid the tabloid press. The ability to communicate is the most important quality in political success. Celebrities who are good at relating to the average person (a la Reagan) have tremendous upside as candidates. They can overcome their relative inexperience and lack of issue familiarity by being good communicators.

Shrewdness counts for a lot in campaign. Celebrities who have a good street-sense and flair for self-promotion typically do very well. Even if the individual does not have a detailed grasp of policy issues, they can compete effectively by using the media skills they have.

The biggest challenge for celebrity candidates is the tabloid press. Befitting their past as entertainers, celebrities attract both positive and negative coverage. More so than other politicians, celebrities tend to get very personal coverage. Reporters are much more likely to focus on their background and personality than their substantive stances. This can either help or hurt celebrities, depending on what things are in their past that get uncovered by reporters.

The Case of Arnold Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger is the most famous celebrity ever to run for political office in the United States. Most other entertainers who have run for office have done so when their Hollywood careers were in eclipse. The California action figure is noteworthy because he still is an "A-level" star who is near the top of his career.

The Terminator brings clear strengths to the electoral process. He is well-known and generates a lot of media coverage. He is excellent at raising a lot of money for his political campaign. He is an effective communicator and shrewd about self-presentation.

But he faces problems as well. Most obviously, he has little detailed policy knowledge. Unlike career politicians, who have spent years thinking about the idiosyncracies of school reform, tax rates, and immigration policy, Schwarzenegger has not been engrossed in policymaking. Although smart and articulate, mastery of policy knowledge is not his strong point.

Fortunately from his standpoint, votes do not always go for policy wonks, especially when 70 percent of Californians feel the state is headed in the wrong direction. In a situation where career politicians are seen as having performed poorly, coming from outside the political establishment compensates for the lack of policy expertise.

More problematic are deeds from his past that keep surfacing. The infamous 1977 Oui magazine interview in which Schwarzenegger discussed engaging in group sex and drug use is but one example of the tabloid coverage that Hollywood entertainers receive when they step into the political world. Since their coverage tends to be highly personalistic, reporters love to cover the background of famous Hollywood entertainers.

The major uncertainty is how Schwarzenegger handles these queries and how voters process this information. Celebrities can sidestep personal problems as long as they are honest about past mistakes and adept at sidestepping controversy. Voters generally are willing to tolerate past misdeeds from celebrities that they might not from conventional politicians.

How Celebrities Perform in Office

The ultimate question of Hollywood celebrities is what kind of office-holder will they be. Do celebrities make for effective governors, Senators, and representatives? What challenges face them when they win a major office? What determines how successful they will be in the governing process?

In looking at past cases, celebrities have a mixed record in terms of office performance. Governor Jesse Ventura came to office in Minnesota amid high hopes. He had surprised the experts and become one of the few Independents to win executive office in the United States. By assembling an unusual coaliton of new voters, young people, and those who had just moved to the state, he was able to beat an established Democrat and Republican.

However, as his governorship unfolded, Ventura alienated the state press, made a series of outrageous statements that aggravated the public, and had difficulties working with the Minnesota legislature. Before long, his popularity had dropped and Ventura was not considered a very effective governor.

This story reveals one of the major difficulties that plague celebrity politicians. The problem is a lack of a firm political base. To win office, celebrities often assemble unconventional coalitions that transcend normal party alignments. Unlike established politicians who most appeal to conventional political constituencies, celebrities can build coalitions that are more broad-based. They can reach out to Republicans, Democrats, and Independents without necessarily compromising their public support.

Although this electoral strategy works very well and helps to explain why celebrities win, this same quality harms them in the governing process. The presence of broad voter support often is based on an allegiance that is not very deep. The lack of a firm base means that when their public support drops, they do not have a committed base that will stay with them through thick and thin.

In addition, the very qualities (independence and unconventionality) that voters find appealing often alienate the media and legislators. When these individuals start complaining, voters sometimes see the celebrity as an amateur and a novice who is not up the governing job. If that perception becomes widespread, it is hard for celebrity politicians to govern very effectively.


Order New Book on Celebrity Politics

Interested in learning more about celebrity politics? Order this new book, Celebrity Politics, by Darrell West and John Orman. Published by Prentice Hall in 2003, this volume looks at the history and contemporary role of celebrities in American politics. It examines the intersection of prominent families such as the Kennedys, Bushes, and Clintons with entertainment figures such as Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, the Rock, and Barbara Streisand. In addition, we analyze the celebrities from John Glenn and Jim Bunning to Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Steve Largent who have served in Congress in recent years. The book is available for purchase online at www.Amazon.com.