During his career as quarterback of the Denver Broncos, John Elway led the team to five Super Bowls, winning two of them. He threw for at least 3,000 yards in each of a dozen seasons, and at the time of his retirement had won more games than any quarterback in NFL history.
These are impressive stats, but are they the right qualifications to run for governor? Colorado Republicans think so. They’ve pledged to clear the field for Elway should he choose to run next year. “There’s the Trump effect,” Greg Brophy, a Republican consultant who ran for governor in 2014, said at the end of last year. “Having 100 percent statewide name ID gives you such a tremendous advantage.”
You don’t have to think past Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gov. Jesse Ventura and Mayor Clint Eastwood to recognize there’s nothing new about celebrities seeking office. But the success of Donald Trump -- the nation’s first president elected without any prior experience in government or the military -- is bound to inspire more big names to seek office. “He opens the door for other celebrities to do this,” says David Jackson, a Bowling Green University political scientist who researches links between voters’ political and entertainment preferences. “People seem to have made the choice that they wanted somebody not just untainted by Washington, but untainted by any actual government experience whatsoever.”
Celebrities enjoy a lot of cachet when it comes to politics. They are constantly being called on to lend their names -- and their ability to attract media attention -- to causes of all kinds. Once a celebrity realizes her value as a surrogate spokeswoman and fundraiser, it’s not much of a leap for her to conclude she would be a plausible candidate, says Eric Kasper, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Celebrities face less potential downside than career politicians, who have to weigh whether an unsuccessful race could bring their careers to a premature end. “If they win, obviously they get the position they’re seeking,” Kasper says. “If they lose, they’ve had all this media coverage. [Then it’s] how do they spin that into the next record or movie deal?”
Earlier celebs-turned-pols had to prove their policy bona fides before being taken seriously. Schwarzenegger, for example, worked on fitness and afterschool issues at the federal and state levels. It remains to be seen whether Trump has lowered that barrier to entry by being elected without demonstrating any particular policy expertise in the past -- or whether, if he remains controversial, he will make voters more wary about supporting someone without clear qualifications.
But lots of elected officials have had no prior government experience. Maybe they weren’t reality TV stars, but they parlayed some form of fame or business success into political victories.
Trump winning the nation’s top office won’t discourage famous people from looking in the mirror and seeing a political star. “I don’t see how this would do anything other than inspire more celebrities to run for office,” Jackson says.