Celebrities in politics have a leg up, but their benefits can’t outweigh fundraising failures

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Richard T. Longoria, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

(THE TALK) TV personality Mehmet Oz lost his run for Senator from Pennsylvania during the November midterms. And former NFL football star Herschel Walker appears to be falling further behind his opponent, incumbent Raphael Warnock, as they head out for a Georgia senator runoff on Dec. 6, 2022.

While prominent political candidates have advantages, such as notoriety and media attention, they often lose their candidatures for public office.

They lose for the same reasons other candidates lose. If they represent the minority party in a one-party-dominated county or state, they lose. If they take unpopular political positions, they lose. If they’re never seen as serious candidates, they lose.

I’m a political scientist specializing in American politics. In my recently published book, Celebrities in American Elections, I show that celebrity candidates who win the fundraising battle tend to win their elections—and those who fall behind in fundraising tend to lose.

Political Fundraising Matters

Both Oz and Walker lost the fundraising battle to their opponents, Democratic politicians John Fetterman and Raphael Warnock, in the November 2022 Midterms.

Excluding the significant spending of outside political and advocacy groups, Federal Election Commission data shows Fetterman raised $17 million more than Oz and Warnock raised $86 million more than Walker.

The ability to raise money is an indicator of a candidate’s strength. It also allows candidates to hire professional staff and pay for advertising to persuade voters.

Candidates, celebrity or not, who raise more money tend to win.

There are many examples that show the specific connection between prominent candidates raising money during election campaigns and being elected.

Hollywood stars Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger all outspent their opponents and got elected. Singer Sonny Bono, on the other hand, spent more than his rival in mayoral and house races, winning in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, when Bono spent less than his opponent on his bid for the Senate seat, he lost the race.

Other examples show the connection between the failure of prominent candidates to outdo their opponents in fundraising and their eventual loss.

Hollywood performers Shirley Temple, Gary Coleman, Roseanne Barr, Cynthia Nixon, Kanye West and Caitlyn Jenner all collected less than their opponents and lost their elections.

Self-funded candidates masquerading as Dr. Oz rely mostly on their own fortune, tend to lose. Because self-funded candidates tend to be political outsiders, they are less likely to be supported by the political insiders who are major funders. The donor class tends to support stronger, more experienced candidates.

More game rules

During an election, other trends play a role. Some of them include whether a candidate is an incumbent and has a notoriety and what party affiliation they have. And while celebrity candidates certainly have many perks, they’re not as popular as some observers would suggest.

Pennsylvania and Georgia have been key swing states in recent election cycles, with both the presidency and control of the Senate tied to their constituents’ decisions.

Political science shows time and time again that it’s easier to change a vacancy than to defeat an incumbent.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey announced in October 2020 that he would not run again for election in Pennsylvania. That opened the door for Democrats to turn the seat.

Fetterman, a nationally elected official with a strong base of support, notoriety and a fundraising edge, secured that vacant seat on Nov. 8. Democrats were worried about losing the race after Fetterman’s poor performance in the debate, but he still prevailed.

While Oz had a name thanks to his television show, he was successfully defined as the carpet digger in the state and failed to match his opponent’s spending.

In Georgia, incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, has a base of support, notoriety, and a fundraising advantage. Walker has the notoriety, but he has faced questions about his mental fitness and appeared inept on the campaign trail. Despite the race being a tie, Walker’s inexperience showed and he has been outclassed by Warnock so far.

For Walker to win the runoff, a few things would have to happen.

Walker would need to win the votes of Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver, who has not previously endorsed Walker or Warnock. Turnout in the run-off election is also important. Polls show Walker leading among voters aged 50+. Older voters tend to vote at higher rates than younger voters, meaning Walker has the lead among higher-tilt voters. On the other hand, younger voters appear to be more energetic than in the recent past. Warnock, who has runoff experience, would need to energize young people for a few more weeks to win.

After all, in most states, candidates, famous or not, can win with a multitude of voters. In fact, many celebrities who have been elected have done so with less than 50% of the vote.

Wrestler Jesse Ventura won with 37% of the vote when he was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California in 2003 with 49% of the vote. Comedian Al Franken received less than 42% of the vote when he was elected Senator from Minnesota in 2008. And Donald Trump received 46% of the vote when he won the presidency in 2016.

The United States’ pluralism rule, which allows a candidate who receives the most votes to win, and the electoral college has allowed celebrities to win elections even if they have fewer than the majority. This does not indicate overwhelming popularity; rather, their victories are made possible by specific voting rules.

Future prominent candidates

Oz and Walker won’t be the last celebrities to seek public office. Celebrities have the talent and fame to make them viable political candidates. You are comfortable in front of cameras and audiences and adept at creating a personal brand that resonates with the public.

You also benefit from extensive media coverage. Free media attention gives them an edge that non-celebrity candidates don’t have.

But it’s likely that celebrities who had political experience before running for office would do better than celebrities who are new to politics.

Schwarzenegger and Franken offer an example of how prominent candidates can benefit from getting involved in politics before they run for office. Schwarzenegger, for example, initially championed Proposition 49, a law that created after-school educational enrichment programs, before officially diving into politics.

Franken founded the Midwest Values ​​political action committee and called on his celebrity friends for donations so he could fund Democratic candidates who would later serve as his political allies. This allowed Schwarzenegger and Franken to learn valuable political skills before running for office. Even Trump was an active political donor and prominent supporter before declaring his candidacy for the presidency.

The loss of Oz and Walker’s current deficit show that even celebrities have to pay their political dues before taking office.

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