Donald Trump has thrown American politics for a loop. With the success of the former Apprentice host, popular entertainers are hinting at—or even declaring their intentions—to run for office. Caitlyn Jenner has suggested she may run for Senate in California, a race for which George Clooney’s name has also been floated. Current and former WWE wrestlers are also throwing their names into the proverbial ring as Kane and Booker T announced plans to seek the mayoralties of their respective hometowns: Knox County, Tennessee, and Houston, Texas. Even aging rockers like Ted Nugent and Kid Rock have expressed their desire to run for US Senate.
Of course, this is not the first time this has happened. Shortly after pro wrestler Jesse Ventura’s electoral success to become Governor of Minnesota in 1999, two of his Predator co-stars (Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Sonny Landham of Kentucky) sought gubernatorial office. While only Schwarzenegger succeeded in being elected, the entry of entertainers into American politics has tended towards success and away from failure.
The reason, to paraphrase comedian Joe Rogan, is that politics is a popularity contest and someone who was actually popular finally entered the race.
A particularly intriguing candidate is the rap-rocker and ‘90s icon, Kid Rock. Rock — real name Robert Ritchie — has all but officially announced his campaign for U.S. Senate in Michigan. Rock has used a recent concert tour of the state to boost media coverage of his run. For the past several weeks, Rock has been starting his concerts with political speeches outlining his belief system. Taking a page out of former-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson’s playbook, Rock’s speeches usually rhyme. Giving them his own rock ‘n’ roll flair, his statements are accompanied by an emphatic backing band and light show.
The former headliner of MTV’s Spring Break outlined his support for universal health care, but opposition to Obamacare; his support for gay marriage, but opposition to transgender bathroom rights; and his desire to get “those who can’t even take care of themselves, but keep having kid after [expletive] kid” off of welfare. He also condemned variously deadbeat dads, Black Lives Matter activists, and members of the KKK and Neo-Nazi organizations.
While Rock’s style of politics is certainly over-the-top and unusually theatrical, in the time of such political upsets as Trump and Brexit, his unique campaign style may surprise observers with its effectiveness. With the announcement of his exploration of a senate candidacy, Rock also announced he was founding a 501(C)(3) non-profit with the express purpose of registering attendees at his rock concerts to vote.
A survey of Rock’s concerts in Michigan over the past month show that the average arena could hold 21,000 people. If Rock is able to register even 10% of those in attendance, he would get 2,100 likely supporters per night. His six-night stop in Detroit alone could leave him with 12,600 newly registered supporters. In a state where the GOP primary has garnered an average of 661,000 voters over the past two elections, Rock’s ability to organize could surprise. Rock has further declared his intention to dovetail any potential run with a concert tour of Michigan, equating his decision with that of presidential candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who coupled their presidential campaigns in 2007 with book tours.
It’s insufficient to chalk up the potential political success of entertainers to “living in the time of Trump,” however. Simply believing that public individuals can successfully make the transition to politics because of their popular appeal ignores many of the reasons President Trump won both the most competitive Republican primary in the past 50 years and an historic U.S. presidential race.
Subsequent analysis of the 2017 presidential election has affirmed what many early observers noticed: Trump’s success was due in large part to his appeal among white, working-class Americans in rust-belt states like Kid Rock’s own Michigan. This is a voting bloc that has not coalesced definitively behind a Republican candidate since the Reagan Democrats in 1980. Trump was the first Republican to win the Great Lakes State since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Likewise, Trump’s success in winning the Midwest states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio was unprecedented since Ronald Reagan’s near-sweep of the electoral college in 1984.
Kid Rock’s road to electoral success lies in his appeal to this voter group as well. But while Donald Trump appealed to these folks as a straight-talking and financially successful outsider who could fix a corrupt political system, Rock appeals to them as one of their own. A Michigan boy raised in Detroit who grew up alongside the Motor City’s rougher elements. Rock’s music signifies this similarly broad appeal. While regularly panned by critics, Rock has consistently maintained high record sales (breaking platinum numerous times) by marketing primarily to rural and working-class Americans.
Rock’s music — a mix of rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, hip-hop, and country — helped to establish his success early in the ‘90s. His combination of divergent sounds, garish outfits, and outlandish performances drew crowds of Americans to his concerts who saw him as speaking to their personal experience in a way that both entertained and excited. With all the lamentations of lovers leaving “on the midnight train to Memphis” and the braggadocious self-styling as “Pimp of the Nation,” Rock’s oftentimes ridiculous lyrics and driving guitar riffs helped to guide the vastly different life journeys of working-class Americans from coast to coast.
Rock’s unique emotional connection with working-class voters would put him in a particularly advantageous position. Cults of personality often lead to political success. Canada’s own Justin Trudeau would likely be an unknown were it not for the success of his father Pierre. Ditto George W. Bush. Rock has been able to establish goodwill after decades of performance, and his commitment to establish numerous local businesses in Michigan. This is particularly evident by the fact that Rock is far out-polling his potential competitors in the Republican primary. Recent polling puts him up around 50% support among Republican voters — with his closest competitor trailing 41 points behind.
Rock is offering traditional Republican talking points in a style that (to put it mildly) is uncharacteristic of American politics. He is the opposite of staid Democrat incumbent Debbie Stabenow. His combination of eye-catching performance and meat-and-potatoes “cultural conservative” stylings could lead him to the U.S. Senate, a win the GOP has not experienced since 1994. If Kid Rock’s intentions are serious, he may have created a new form of campaigning that could blow his opposition out of the water.
The informed observer would do well not to take his candidacy lightly and to take Kid Rock at his word when he says:
And if Kid Rock for Senate/
Has some folks in disarray/
Wait until they hear Kid Rock/
For President of the USA!/
‘Cause wouldn’t it be a sight to see/
President Kid Rock in Washington DC/
Standing on the desk/
In the Oval Office like a G?/
You’ve never seen a [expletive]/
Quite like me!