“Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon is taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook in her bid for governor of New York. Since announcing her candidacy last week, Nixon has wasted no time in criticizing her Democratic primary opponent, Andrew Cuomo, and his long political pedigree and casting her lack of experience as one of her key strengths, arguing, “sometimes a little naiveté is exactly what is needed.”
Sounds familiar, right? The problem is Cynthia Nixon is not Donald Trump. While she possesses some of the attributes that make celebrities effective campaigners, she lacks others. Name recognition is one of the most important assets celebrities have in their efforts to win elective office. When Trump entered the Republican presidential primary in 2015, 92 percent of Republicans knew who he was. This is the same name recognition rate Cuomo currently has among Democrats. Nixon’s current name recognition rate among Democrats is a mere 40 percent, according to recent polls.
Also critical is the context in which celebrities become famous. When Trump entered the 2016 presidential race, his tenure on “Celebrity Apprentice” was just ending. Nixon’s last big role in the “Sex and the City 2” movie was eight years ago. Trump benefited from decades of concentrated publicity, constantly honing his public image as a successful businessman who the public came to know intimately through his hit reality television show “The Apprentice.”
Reality television, unlike scripted television, gives viewers the impression that they really understand someone. By getting a glimpse into Trump’s “real” life, the public became familiar with his family, his personality, and his executive leadership traits. He had season after season of positive press coverage. The nature of press coverage matters.
Astute observers of last week’s political events will notice that Nixon’s campaign, much like Trump’s in 2016, is currently receiving a disproportionate amount of news coverage. A basic Google keyword search for “Cynthia Nixon Governor 2018” yields more than 7.7 million results, while the same search for Andrew Cuomo yields less than 5.1 million. At least 227 pages of broadcast transcripts on Lexis Nexis have Nixon’s name since her campaign announcement, and only 111 pages of broadcast transcripts have included Cuomo’s name.
It is true that a television star’s unlikely rise to political power is a more interesting news story than the dusty campaign of an establishment politician. Much of the public debate surrounding Nixon’s campaign is about whether she is qualified for the job, whether an inexperienced outsider can possibly beat a battle-tested incumbent governor, and what we should make of the seemingly inescapable phenomenon of celebrities running for elected office. The fact that Nixon is running in the wake of Trump’s presidential victory will likely affect the way voters perceive her.
That Nixon has not yet caught up to Cuomo on a host of variables closely associated with electability does not mean that she never will. Most voters do not pay attention to political campaigns until much closer to Election Day, and the wave of news stories prominently featuring Nixon while only mentioning her primary opponent in passing only helps draw attention to her candidacy.
But we also need to be careful not to jump to conclusions. Just because some celebrities have won elections in the recent past does not mean every celebrity has the same chance of success in the future. Fame is not binary. Democratic voters are different than Republican voters. Gubernatorial elections are different than presidential elections. And every time a celebrity runs, the political context changes a little bit.
Lauren A. Wright, Ph.D., is a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today.” Her forthcoming book on celebrities running for elected office will be published in 2019. Follow her on Twitter @DrLaurenAWright.