Entertainment value in politics is underrated.
The moaning and groaning about Donald Trump and whether his campaign is a circus act has something to do with a general question about his résumé: Is this guy really a smart businessman, or is he P.T. Barnum in a bespoke suit?
It doesn’t matter. The circus is still named for Barnum, after all, and the value of attracting attention is evident in the front-runner’s poll numbers. Candidates like Ann Richards, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken turned their stage presence into political success. Maybe it will work for Trump.
If Trump seems ridiculous, unprepared or unlikely, that’s not a sure sign of failure. Entertainment value is not usually enough to get someone into office, but candidates who can’t get the attention of voters can’t win, anyhow. Right now, it’s enough for him to be the least boring candidate on stage. Voters still have plenty of time to decide whether he’s up to the job.
Richards couldn’t go into a store or restaurant in Texas without someone talking to her, taking a picture or just pointing her out to friends. She couldn’t do it in lots of places out of state, either. She came from politics and had a terrific ability to mix the entertainment with substantive policy and political ideas, but her humor and presence are what kept people coming. It paid off in a race with a charismatic Republican, Clayton Williams Jr., whose campaign was undone by the candidate’s Trump-like soundbites on subjects ranging from rape to his own taxes.
George W. Bush was a celebrity of a different sort. He is a famous face from a famous family who — even when he was running for governor of Texas — attracted attention from people who are not ordinarily interested in politics. He was careful when running against Richards in 1994 (maybe there’s a lesson for Trump’s opponents here?) to acknowledge her popularity and her audience even as he attacked some of her ideas.
His nephew, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, is the closest thing to a celebrity in the current lineup of state officeholders. He’s not yet famous, but he’s on his way. Once he declared for office in the early stages of the 2014 election cycle, other Republicans with an eye on that office found other things to do and other offices to seek.
With a name like that, he had the sort of advantage others could get only with millions in campaign advertising.
Wendy Davis had some celebrity. People knew who she was after she filibustered to try to block legislation raising medical standards for abortion clinics in Texas, increasing requirements for doctors who perform those operations and outlawing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The attention she attracted launched her 2014 campaign for governor and helped attract millions in campaign contributions. Davis fell far short of winning in a resolutely Republican state, but in the early stages — like where we are in the current race for president — the attention she had attracted made her a viable Democratic standard-bearer. She made it over the first barrier (getting attention) and failed at the second one (getting elected).
That happens. Victor Morales was the hottest ticket in Texas politics in 1996 after beating two sitting members of Congress and a former attorney general candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. He lost to Phil Gramm, having failed to turn his attention-getting from-out-of-nowhere story into a real argument for why he should hold office.
That’s one of the tricks to these things. First, get voters to pay attention. Second, answer the inevitable question about credibility. When voters say, “Really?” the candidate eventually has to provide an answer. Some do, some don’t. The guy leading the Republican field has not bothered with this so far, but that’s no reason to disregard him.
Trump already succeeded in the first thing a candidate has to accomplish: People know who he is. He has the stage, and your attention. At least a dozen Republicans are wishing they had achieved as much.
Now he has to do something with it.