Brown University

Entertainment in the Americas: Popular Icons and an “Incumbency Advantage” by Rachel Risoleo @ Brown University

In 2015, 2016, and 2017, three “political outsider” presidential candidates rose to prominence in the Americas: Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales, the United States’ Donald Trump, and Honduras’s Salvador Nasralla. All three men campaigned on “anti-elitist” platforms, and Morales and Trump rode public distrust for the political elite straight to their respective presidencies (the fate of Honduras’s most recent election remains to be seen). Many have noticed the populist-like tendencies that these three candidates share, particularly in their anti-corruption stances. However, they also share one common trait that is not as widely-recognized – they are all former television entertainers, or “pop culture icons.”

In a political climate where anti-elitism and quasi-populism are on the rise and more common than ever, voters are shifting away from more traditional, political candidates. While this trend has been particularly noticeable in Europe and the United States, the popular candidacies of Morales and Nasralla indicate that successful “political outsiders” have made their way into Latin America, as well. At a cursory glance, the success of Morales – and, potentially, that of Nasralla – compared to seasoned, political elites, contradicts the incumbency advantage theory proposed by Michael Penfold and Javier Corrales. [1] However, when examined together, the candidacies of Trump, Morales, and Nasralla reveal a new, disturbing trend: As popular icons, these three men have enjoyed many of the benefits typically enjoyed by incumbent candidates outlined by Penfold and Corrales. This correlation illustrates the danger of conflating entertainment with politics, and suggests that this conflation may pose some of the same dangers as political elite domination in politics.

Penfold and Corrales point to a variety of “direct and indirect” factors that may account for the high reelection rates of incumbents, including:

  1. Higher media exposure
  2. Psychological preference of citizens for the “devil they know”
  3. Psychological preference of voters to identify with “people,” not parties.[2]

Trump, Morales, and Nasralla’s statuses as entertainers afforded them these advantages that Penfold and Corrales argue exclusively improve incumbent reelection prospects. This is especially odd because not only were these candidates not incumbents, but they were each running against either an incumbent or an established political elite. Nasralla ran against incumbent candidate Juan Orlando Hernández, while both Trump and Morales ran against former first-ladies. Still, all three candidates benefitted from these factors over their “incumbent” counterparts.

The most obvious benefit granted to Morales, Trump, and Nasralla as entertainment figures was higher media exposure, both preceding and during the presidential campaigns. Morales was supposedly a “household name,” after hosting a popular Guatemalan comedy show for 14 years. Nasralla similarly hosted both a sports program and a game show before his run for President. Even before the campaign began, Morales and Nasralla had a very wide breadth in their media presences, specifically apart from politics of their respective races. Donald Trump even more strikingly exemplifies disproportionate media coverage during his presidential campaign. In addition to being a household name before the campaign even began, Trump’s news coverage was drastically higher than that of his competitors. A study by mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of candidates in the United States, found that Donald Trump earned essentially $2 billion worth of “free media,” noting that “Mr. Trump is not just a little better at earning media. He is way better than any of the other candidates.”

Morales, Nasralla, and Trump all ran on anti-elitist platforms, all of which had a profound effect on the psychology of voters, as Penfold and Corrales argue incumbency does. Morales, for example, ran at the most optimal time with regards to the mindset of voters – his mantra “neither corrupt, nor a thief” resonated deeply with voters, who were shaken by the corruption scandal that had ended in the arrest and resignation of former President and Vice President Otto Pérez Molina, and Roxana Baldetti. Nasralla ran against Juan Orlando Hernández, who was the first presidential candidate in Honduras’s democratic history to attempt to run for reelection as an incumbent, despite being implicated in a scandal involving stolen public money, similar to that of Pérez Molina in Guatemala. Finally, Trump focused his campaign on the corruption of Hillary Clinton and the political elite, dubbing Clinton the title “Crooked Hillary,” and appealing to the disenfranchised feelings of American voters.[3] As entertainers, Trump, Morales, and Narsalla are perceived as one step “closer” to the people than their political elite counterparts, and all three capitalized on that reality during their campaigns.

If entertainers and pop culture icons enjoy incumbency advantage-like benefits when running for elected office, what implications does that have for the state of democracy in a political landscape where the conflation of entertainment and politics is pervasive? Penfold and Corrales argue that, “if presidential accountability were playing a major role in electoral outcomes, then incumbency would not confer such an automatic advantage.”[4] Thus, the existence of any incumbency advantage at all implies a lack of or decrease in a key tenant of democracy: presidential accountability.

Ellen Lust and David Waldner argue that a lack of accountability – which they define as “answerability and punishment” – can be a triggering factor for democratic backsliding.[5] Because of their status as “entertainers,” Morales, Trump, and Nasralla have all enjoyed elements of a quasi-incumbency advantage. Per Penfold and Corrales, this very advantage is associated with the diminishing importance of presidential accountability to voters. While this might not constitute democratic backsliding in and of itself, the cases of Morales, Trump, and Nasralla demonstrate that the conflation of entertainment with politics might be correlated with a decreased importance of presidential accountability in elections, consequently putting democracies in danger of backsliding.


[1] Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, “Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America.” Journal of Democracy, 25(4). October 2014, pp. 157-168.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land.

[4] Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, “Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America.” Journal of Democracy, 25(4). October 2014, pp. 157-168.

[5] Ellen Lust and David Waldner, “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” Institute of International Education, 11 June 2015.

1 Comment

  1. Lukas McMahon

    December 11, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    “the cases of Morales, Trump, and Nasralla demonstrate that the conflation of entertainment with politics might be correlated with a decreased importance of presidential accountability in elections, consequently putting democracies in danger of backsliding.” This is worrying because it’s an election tactic that takes advantage of a psychological weakness in humans. A pro-democracy candidate could just as easily exploit this shortcut as an authoritarian one. In the US, news coverage of Trump and Clinton hardly ever focused on policy, favoring scandals and gaffes instead. Could this be part of the problem too? Perhaps more policy-focused news coverage could counteract the pure name-recognition that seems to have clinched victory for these candidates. By sensationalizing the elections and focusing on personality over policy, the media plays into the hands of the “pop culture icon” candidates.

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