Caitlyn Jenner has an uphill battle if the reality TV star/influencer wants to replace California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.
Even with a Republican-led effort to remove Newsom qualifying enough signatures to force a recall election - likely this fall - the sitting governor currently enjoys healthy approval ratings in the deep-blue Golden State, with 54% of Californians approving of his performance, compared to just 36% who do not.
But Jenner - the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon - has already cleared one major political hurdle that trips up countless other campaigns, no matter how much money they spend: statewide name recognition.
That value, according to campaign consultants, ranges from immense to immeasurable.
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“Name recognition saves a campaign millions of dollars,” said Ethan Zorfas, Senior Vice President at political consulting firm Axiom Strategies. “That starting point gives you this huge advantage.”
Zorfas, who consulted on the first and only political campaign for former Auburn football coach - and now U.S. Senator - Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), said name recognition is harder to buy than it used to be.
“Whether it be a mayoral or presidential race, the first conversation (consultants have) with a candidate is how to make people generally aware of you,” Zorfas said. “With so many different ways to connect with voters, you can’t just (get name recognition) on TV anymore.”
“The segmented media landscape makes it much harder to get name I.D. than it did 15 or 20 years ago,” said Brad Herold, a veteran campaign consultant and former Executive Director of the Republican Party of Florida. “15 years ago, you just needed to raise enough money to get on broadcast television to reach 75% of the electorate.”
Herold, now with Florida-based Something Else Strategies, said celebrity candidates also bring value to a campaign in the form of “outsider” status.
“There is added benefit to being an outsider in both parties right now - much more in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party - but people are looking for candidates who come from outside the typical political apparatus because politicians have such bad approval ratings.”
Recent polls suggest actor Matthew McConaughey, who has reportedly neither voted nor donated to a primary election since at least 2012, would lead a hypothetical matchup against incumbent Texas governor Greg Abbott; and former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker would be a viable threat to Senator Rafael Warnock (D-Ga.), who has to run for re-election in 2022.
Messaging Still Matters
“If LeBron James ran for governor in Ohio, I don’t think he’d win,” Zorfas said of the left-leaning basketball star and his right-leaning home state. “If candidates don’t align with the electorate, they aren’t going to win.”
Zorfas stressed the importance of converting fans of a celebrity into fans of a celebrity’s politics.
“(Name recognition) helps create a splash, but you have to still run the dang campaign...if Tommy Tuberville was only a lukewarm ‘Trump guy,’ I don’t think he wins that (Senate) election,” he said.
A Republican affiliation - in a state that’s significantly more progressive than it was when Arnold Schwartzenegger won a recall election back in 2003 - could be Jenner’s biggest liability in California. But it may not be her only one.
Celebrities without political experience may not have years of policy speeches, but they often have years of television, radio, and digital content that never went through a consultant’s filter.
“A candidate like Caitlyn Jenner has hundreds of hours of onscreen comments that could be used by someone like Gavin Newsom,” Herold said. “If you have never been in a political campaign or dealt with political issues, you don’t know what you don’t know. There are all these nuances of political campaigns you just can’t learn; you just have to experience it.”
Celebrity Candidates Aren’t New
Andrew Yang wasn’t a TV star or internet influencer before he ran for president in 2020, but the political outsider built a cult following for himself - as well as massive name recognition.
He’s now the frontrunner to be New York City’s next mayor. But he certainly wouldn’t be the first politician to start his elected career in the mayor’s office; Michael Bloomberg did it in 2001.
Actors Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono, and Alan Autry also all won mayoral races - all in California. The state also saw actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger win gubernatorial races, although both had been politically active prior to their runs.
Wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura won Minnesota’s gubernatorial race in 1998, and the U.S. Senate has seen its fair share of celebrities over the years, from Tuberville to comedian Al Franken to astronaut John Glenn.
“The first president was a celebrity president,” Herold said. “George Washington was the biggest celebrity in the 13 colonies at the time. There have always been celebrity candidates because the hardest thing to get in politics is name I.D.”
It’s a maxim that even holds true overseas, with former comedians winning the top elected jobs in Ukraine (Volodymyr Zelensky), Guatemala (Jimmy Morales), and Slovenia (Marjan Sarec).
In an era where seemingly no corner of society can escape politicization, more and more celebrities may feel the pull of politics.
“Politics is seeping into all of our cultures,” Herold said. “So it’s only natural that people from the business world and celebrity world are going to get more involved because they’re getting pulled into it anyway.”
Celebrities like Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have refused to close the door entirely on political runs, while the GOP 2024 rumor mill is filled with non-politician political celebrities like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr.
Both Lara Trump and Ivanka Trump’s names have been floated for possible Senate runs.
But don’t expect most celebrities - even those with the Trump name - to replicate the blueprint President Trump laid out.
“Donald Trump’s path to victory is unreplicable by other candidates,” Herold said. “He was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate in how he broke down barriers both in the Republican party and the general election. If a celebrity candidate just comes in and says, ‘I’m just going to do what Trump did,’ they’re destined to fail...you just can’t replicate that.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at email@example.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.