In the United States, politics and celebrity have always been synonymous, especially when it comes to our highest office.
In the United States, politics and celebrity have always been synonymous, especially when it comes to our highest office. American history is full of unique and changing ways in which political figures rise to the presidency, in how they present themselves and even in how they announce their intention to run. Sarah Palin may or may not seek the 2012 Republican nomination, but she sure has shown how someone who was all but unknown three years ago can use new media and entertainment to build a celebrity political brand. John McCain put Palin on a fast track to stardom when he tapped her as his running mate, and she has taken it from there, successfully portraying herself as the ultimate average American with average American values and lifestyle. And where better to sell yourself as a real person than on a reality television show? Even though Sarah Palin’s Alaska has not been renewed for another season by TLC, it was a brilliant piece of political marketing. American politicians have always found their own ways of introducing and defining themselves in ways that built celebrity and established affinities with voters. In the 19th century, William Henry Harrison provided the model for the “front porch campaign,” staying close to home and playing the role of the humble frontiersman. To underscore the contrast between himself and the “elitist” incumbent, Martin Van Buren, he made the log cabin and home-brewed hard cider symbols of his campaign. Abe Lincoln drew the same sort of everyman-versus-the-establishment contrast not by staying home, but by crisscrossing Illinois to debate Stephen A. Douglas, the great orator and politician, who had married into money. Dwight Eisenhower built on his celebrity as a military commander and could have had either the Republican or Democratic nominations. In 1956, John F. Kennedy, then essentially a back-bencher, forced his way into national attention by getting his name introduced as a nominee for vice president at the Democratic Convention, even though presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson had already made it clear that Estes Kefauver would be his running mate. All Kennedy needed was that exposure. Four years later, JFK brought us both an American Camelot and a New Frontier. Palin brought us to another frontier—a real one with bears, fishing and wilderness—and delivered it weekly on her television show. Like its star or not, Sarah Palin’s Alaska meshed her lifestyle perfectly with her political message of old-fashioned self-reliance and American exceptionalism. If Palin does decide to run, can she get the nomination and win the presidency? The first goal is obviously much more within her grasp, but won’t be as easy as some might think, especially if another new media celebrity enters the race. That would be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose dressing down of a public school teacher has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube. Christie has taken on his state’s powerful unions to make budget cuts, and most independents are solidly with the GOP in their complaints about public employee salaries and benefits. Unlike Palin, Christie is doing more than just talking. Our first of the year interactive polling found Christie the leader among Republican voters as their choice for the 2012 Republican nomination. We offered the names of seven possible candidates, and Christie led with 27 percent, followed by Mitt Romney at 17 percent and Palin at 16 percent. The poll also found Christie was the only Republican with a lead over President Barack Obama. However, Christie says he has no plans to run for president next year. Since Christie has never appeared on MTV’s Jersey Shore and has even criticized the popular show for its portrayal of his state, I suppose we should take him at his word. John Zogby is president and CEO of the polling firm Zogby International. You can post comments on political topics in the Zogby Forums at Zogby.com.