Celebrities win at ballot box two-thirds of the time

January 27, 2021

Celebs who decide to run for office usually win. (AP Photo/Steve Yeater)

American celebrities win an “astounding” share of elections they enter at all levels of government, according to new research, even though they don’t often run, highlighting that their status can be a potent political force and enable them to pick their races. 

In an article from the February 2021 issue of Electoral Studies, co-authors Tom Knecht and Ray Rosentrater of Westmont College found evidence that celebrity amateur candidates between 1928 and 2018 won a whopping 67% of the races they entered at the local, state and national levels.

But only 166 American celebrities ran for public office over that period, the researchers found, a tiny number even considering how relatively few celebrities there are in the country. Over that same timeline, they estimated that nearly 36 million total candidates had stood for election at some level of government.

The reason why so few celebrities run for office, yet so many who do win, could be that they’re generally in a better position than other prospective candidates to be picky about the contests they enter — and to use their fame or cultural cachet to their advantage once they’ve picked their spots.

“Celebrities possess many electoral advantages, but perhaps the greatest is that they do not need politics” to make a name or a living for themselves, Knecht and Rosentrater said, noting that this relative freedom allows them to run in favorable races 78% of the time. Ultimately, that means, "The electoral odds are stacked in celebrities’ favor.”

The researchers set out to investigate celebrities’ electoral fortunes, building their dataset of celebrity amateur candidates between 1928 and 2018 from previous literature and specialized online searches for people with some level of fame or who had once had jobs widely viewed as “cool.” Following in the footsteps of political scientist David Canon’s Actors, Athletes and Astronauts: Political Amateurs in the United States Congress, they focused on actors, athletes and astronauts who hadn’t previously held elected office.

To make sure their initial list was comprehensive, Knecht and Rosentrater sent it off to 12 political scientists and historians who added a net 15 celebrities to the dataset.

Their analysis ultimately focused on races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the most sought-after contests among celebrity office-seekers. That subset of elections is also relatively well-documented, Knecht said, allowing the researchers to run more data through advanced statistical tests.

They found that non-incumbent celebrities won over half of the House races they entered between 1946 and 2012, a victory rate well above other non-incumbents over the same period. Experienced politicians won only 27.4% of their House races, while other amateurs notched victories in only 12.7% of cases.

While all three groups aren’t as successful when pitted against an incumbent, Knecht and Rosentrater found, celebrities still significantly outperformed the other categories.

And famous people retain their advantage over other amateur candidates in similar electoral circumstances and over generic candidates who previously held elected office, but not over experienced counterparts who faced similar situations in their races.

To control for factors that may have influenced the races celebrities ran in compared to the factors faced by other candidates in different contests, the researchers matched each star who ran for the House with a set of five amateurs and a set of five experienced candidates. All of the matched candidates shared a range of circumstances including the same election cycle, party and type of race with the celebrity in question. 

“If we look only at win percentages, celebrities are exceptional candidates: they are much better than experienced politicians, and they are in a completely different league than other amateurs,” Knecht and Rosentrater said. “But if we match celebrities up against experienced politicians in similar electoral contexts, the stars do not burn quite as hot.”

The results could mean that celebrities’ main advantage comes from their unique ability to pick out only the races that they’re likeliest to win — a luxury many career politicians don’t have.

“Experienced politicians have to run risks because they are professionals, while amateur celebrities can afford to be risk-averse because they are amateurs,” the authors said.

By matching up professionals and celebrity amateur candidates in similar races, the celebrities’ upper hand disappears, a result the researchers said suggests that celebrities’ electoral prowess stems mainly from their strategic leeway.

“In short, the celebrity advantage may come not from being better candidates but from running in easier races,” they continued.

While the fact that the celebrity advantage disappears when controlling for electoral conditions might simply be a statistical anomaly, Knecht and Rosentrater pointed out that there’s good reason to believe that the effect they observed boils down to the “luxury of being picky.”

According to their research, celebrity House candidates ran in favorable conditions 78% of the time, compared to 56% for experienced candidates and 37% for other amateurs.

Knecht told The Academic Times that the findings could carry lessons for party strategists considering recruitment options.

“If I were a party leader, I’d try to get celebrities to run, especially in down-ballot races where name recognition really matters,” he said. “If you’re looking at state assembly, state house or local races … just seeing a name that you recognize on the ballot could b be decisive.”

“People are a little starstruck over somebody who played football in the NFL,” he added. “It just sounds a lot cooler than if you are a real estate agent.”

The article “The glitterati government? Amateur celebrity candidates in American elections, 1928-2018,” published online on Dec. 22 in Electoral Studies, was co-authored by professor Tom Knecht and professor emeritus Ray Rosentrater of Westmont College.

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