A lot of people were wrong about the political lifespan of real estate mogul Donald Trump, who is now the front-runner in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — myself included.
We all believed Trump’s high name recognition was the primary driver behind his success in early polling but wagered that once the dust began to clear the more serious candidates would rise up and Trump would inevitably bow out.
Despite a few missteps, which include a handful of over-the-top tweets, questioning the claim that Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is a war hero and a spat with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, Trump continues to dominate.
Are pundits overly discounting the power of celebrity in American politics? You wouldn’t think that would be the case based on President Barack Obama’s two successful presidential elections. But on Trump, they’ve really missed it.
It’s not that the power of celebrity is something new to politics. In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger won the California governorship in the recall election of Gray Davis. More notably, he won it running as a Republican in a liberal Democratic state.
Other successful celebrities-turned-politicians include wrestler Jesse Ventura, recording artist Sonny Bono, former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Bunning, former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent and actor Ronald Reagan.
Even in Alabama, we’ve flirted with celebrity in politics. In the 1960s, there was an effort put into motion to draft Alabama head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to run against Gov. George Wallace after the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” incident at the University of Alabama.
The assumption was that he would have been perhaps the only one who could have defeated the segregationist governor and it was probably a safe assumption. The idea was revisited when Bryant stepped down as Alabama’s head coach in 1982, but he died just four weeks later.
Trump’s ascendency suggests a couple of things. First of all, it exposes the Republican Party as lacking a national identity. The 2016 GOP field has 17 candidates, all with competing viewpoints on a number of major issues, including immigration and foreign policy.
That gives an opening for someone like Trump, who has had policy positions counter to some of the traditional planks in the Republican platform, to come in with the perception of being an outsider to the political process, which isn’t popular with most Americans.
It also shows what sells with a lot of Americans. A lot of the public tunes out politics. It’s complicated, uninteresting and seems corrupt. But a celebrity candidate using populist and nationalist rhetoric gives people a reason to be interested. It’s not necessarily that people are supporting him because they loved him on “The Apprentice,” but it gets his foot in the door with the American public in way Jeb Bush or Scott Walker cannot.
Unlike some of unsuccessful celebrity presidential candidates, including actor Fred Thompson, former astronaut John Glenn and former New York Knicks shooting guard Bill Bradley, Trump has taken that opening to the next level.
Where does he go from here?
Trump launched a fundraising effort over the weekend. That seems odd for a guy whose self-stated net worth is $8 billion (but probably closer to $4 billion, according to other estimates). But he has at least said he’s willing to match whatever contributions he receives.
Fundraising has been part of the game in presidential politics over the last few cycles. Trump is in an interesting spot because he already has what the other candidates are trying to raise money to buy, which is name recognition.
He also has the news media hanging on his every word and this isn’t a coincidence. Trump drives ratings. Without Trump, last week’s presidential debate wouldn’t have come close to having the record-shattering audience of 24 million viewers.
It’s not that the media are in love with Trump. Instead it’s that they cannot afford to ignore him.
When it’s time for voters to go to the polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina early next year, Trump probably will have to spend some money on advertising, assuming he is still in the contest. The popularity contest will no longer be national.
For example, take Rick Santorum’s 2012 run. Nationally, he was relatively unknown. But he tirelessly campaigned in Iowa, paying visits to all of the state’s 99 counties and he emerged as the victor against better-funded opponents. That win in Iowa gave Santorum the ability to stay in the race as long as he did against the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.
Will Trump be able to make himself available to early primary state voters? There probably aren’t a lot of places to land his personal Boeing 757 in Adams County, Iowa.
Will he be willing to do the pancake breakfast tour in New Hampshire? The retail politics of a New Hampshire primary might be difficult for guy who doesn’t like to shake hands.
I wouldn’t underestimate “The Donald” in those situation, however. Those who have done so have been wrong.