Can charisma and 15 minutes of media fame catapult a candidate into the White House?

Picking a president based on her charisma? His sex appeal? What about ability and experience?

Beto O'Rourke and Oprah Winfrey attend Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations at PlayStation Theater on February 05, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for THR)
Beto O'Rourke and Oprah Winfrey attend Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations at PlayStation Theater on February 05, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for THR)

It should come as no surprise that candidates for public office often underscore personal narrative, attempting to cultivate an image of themselves as a charismatic celebrity.

Most of the nearly two dozen candidates vying to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee have taken a turn at fame, although for many, the burst of celebrity lasts no longer than 15 minutes.

Perhaps no candidate in the Democratic primary field exemplifies the collision of celebrity and politics better than former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has crafted his campaign to draw maximum attention to his youthful, charismatic image.

It’s a strategy that draws favorable comparison to older, seemingly staid competitors, in particular, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But it also distracts from the absence of details in his ideas and policy platforms.

The goal, in the end, is to linger in the mind of voters when they enter the ballot box.

“Right now, in the run-up to the 2020 election, Democratic voters are very focused on electability,”Jessica Flanigan, an associate professor at the University of Richmond, wrote recently in The Conversation, an online academic website. “Charisma is a crucial consideration in discussions about who can beat Donald Trump.”


To be sure, charisma, popularity and fame have always been a part of politics. The whole point of a campaign, after all, is to enhance the image of a candidate and convince voters to like them enough to cast a ballot in support.

By their very nature, celebrities are well-known and well-liked by large numbers of people. It makes perfect sense that aspiring political leaders would work hard to enhance their own status in the public eye.

For Flanigan and a growing body of psychologists, political scientists and other observers, the quest for celebrity and political power poses ominous challenges to the foundation of self-governing democracy. Social critics worry that popularity may be viewed by some voters as more important than policymaking.

“As a scholar whose teaching and research addresses the ethics of leadership, I believe that following charisma is a mistake, because charisma has very little to do with the things that voters should care about when choosing political leaders, like their character and ability to govern,” Flanigan wrote.

“[C]harisma prompts people to focus on a candidate’s appearance or extraneous aspects of their personality rather than engaging in independent moral deliberation about the leaders’ qualifications or policy proposals.”


Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who advises corporations and organizations on hiring talented leaders, believes there’s a dark side to the charisma of the public office holder. Writing in 2012 in the Harvard Business Review, Chamorro-Premuzic argued that there’s a danger in allowing reason to be overwhelmed by charm when hiring corporate chief executives or electing presidents:

Charm is based on emotional manipulation and, as such, it has the ability to trump any rational assessment and bias our views. Charismatic leaders influence by charm rather than reason and when they run out of charm they tend to revert to force (think Jim Jones, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, or your favorite brutal dictator). . . .

Egocentricity, deceit, manipulativeness, and selfishness are key career advancers in both politics and management, and many leaders rise to the top motivated by their own problems with authority. Although being in charge is a good antidote to having a boss, if you cannot be managed you can probably not manage others either — this is why Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump spent very little time working for others, but too much time managing others.

But not all social scientists are fearful. Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, defends the public’s preoccupation with celebrity — as well as political leaders’ earnest pursuit of public recognition — as normal and natural.

“Although many social critics have bemoaned this explosion of popular culture as reflecting some kind of collective character flaw, it is in fact nothing more than the inevitable outcome of the collision between 21st-century media and Stone Age minds,” McAndrew wrote in an essay for Psychology Today. “Thus, it appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip.”

McAndrew reasoned that early humans didn’t travel far from their surroundings, didn’t encounter many people outside of their small grouping of family and tribe members, and, therefore, were deeply involved in the lives of those around them. As they encountered strangers, it was necessary to know as much as possible about them to ward off potential dangers.

“In our ancestral world, any person about whom we knew intimate details of his or private life was, by definition, socially important to us,” McAndrew wrote. “Thus, the intense familiarity with celebrities provided by the modern media trips the same gossip mechanisms that have evolved to keep up with the affairs of in-group members. After all, anyone whom we see that often and know that much about must be socially important to us.”


Many of the front-running candidates, such as Biden, Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, haven’t strayed far from the celebrity spotlight, most likely because they were well-known before entering the race.

For others, like Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida, and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, celebrity has been elusive in the early stages of their campaigns.

Often, less well-known candidates turn to Hollywood to ramp up their name recognition by associating themselves with popular entertainers.

Though widely assumed to be a liberal and Democratic outpost, Hollywood’s political activism started out in the late 1920s as a tool of Republican politicians. Emma Grey Ellis, a culture writer for Wired, noted that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer co-founder Louis B. Mayer had at the time “turned MGM into the publicity wing of the Republican party.”

Democrats were relatively late to get into the act, coming onboard during the mid-1930s and through the 1940s, as liberal entertainers. Orson Welles, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart performed and campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt and promoted social issues such as ending segregation, Ellis wrote.

In time, Republicans opted to groom candidates for office instead of burnishing their political image by hobnobbing with glamorous movie stars. Some swapped careers on the silver screen for politics. Notable among them was Ronald Reagan, who was well-known for his turn in 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo before seeking elective office.

“Despite the perception of liberal Hollywood’s political power, liberal Hollywood has actually produced vanishingly few political candidates — Al Franken and Cynthia Nixon being notable exceptions,” Ellis wrote.

“Most ultra-successful Democrats like Presidents Obama and Clinton are politicians-first, and managed to celebritize and glamorize themselves with the help of Hollywood money and counsel.”

Another common misperception is that the blending of star power and politics is an American phenomenon. It’s not.

As Cas Mudde, a public and international affairs professor at the University of Georgia, noted last year in The Guardian:

Celebrities have run for office in other countries as well. In Italy, famous movie star Gina Lollobrigida was unsuccessful, but por star Ilona Staller (AKA Cicciolina) made it into the national parliament. Similarly, while the literary Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa lost the 1990 Peruvian presidential elections, action movie star Joseph “Erap” Estrada served as the 13th president of the Philippines (1998-2001), while international football star George Weah was just elected president of Liberia.

In a more recent instance of reality following fiction, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comic who played an inexperienced president on Ukrainian television, was elected to the actual job in April.

Of course, none of these achievements by celebrity politicians can compare with being elected president — the most powerful and recognized individual in the world, which is why the Democratic candidates crave it so desperately.