Aiken not invisible anymore

By Opinions Editor

American celebrities have influence over popular opinion: They endorse products, support political candidates and even run for political office. Sometimes they have enough clout to win, as in the case of Ronald Reagan, who won the 1980 presidential election against incumbent Jimmy Carter. So with the recent announcement of “American Idol” Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken’s bid for Congress, the ridicule should be tempered with serious consideration.

Aiken announced his candidacy for Congress in North Carolina’s 2nd District in a Feb. 5 YouTube video filmed in the house where his mother, a victim of domestic abuse, brought him up as an infant. He said the state needs better infrastructure to support the unemployed and less fortunate, voicing bipartisan ideals of changing the system to assure that making a living is possible on a minimum wage. Aiken is running as a Democrat in traditionally Republican Raleigh against incumbent Renee Ellmers, who jabbed at Aiken’s second-place finish in “American Idol” and said he “must be bored” when she was interviewed Jan. 29 about rumors of Aiken’s candidacy on the political radio station WMAL.

The politically aware should not snort with derision at Aiken, though. Despite his rise to stardom via “American Idol,” Aiken has a number of very real qualifications, such as working with UNICEF and being appointed to a special education commission by former President George W. Bush. He has also taught special education in North Carolina for several years, and despite his celebrity status, he is aware of the issues that affect the state. Instead of criticizing politicians as many do, Aiken has decided to do something about it.

There has probably never been a better time for an unlikely candidate to run for office. The national approval rating of Congress has fallen from 20 percent to 12 percent during the last four years, according to a Feb. 10 Gallup poll. The average historical approval rating for Congress is 33 percent, which is still shockingly low, but the current approval rating is a dip that comes in the wake of October’s frustrating budget standoff. As Aiken points out, Ellmers voted against the proposed budget on Oct. 16, joining the GOP effort to blackmail the government in exchange for a budget deal. That fact could make her unpopular when Congressional elections come around this fall, despite her 14 percent lead over the competition in the 2012 election.

Historically, when political approval rates for incumbents are low, a third-party or long-shot candidate can sneak by. For instance, independent presidential candidate Gary Johnson garnered approximately 1 percent of the national vote in the 2012 election, a much higher margin than most third-party candidates earn, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Aiken is not a third-party candidate, but he is certainly not a career politician.

Celebrities have won significant races in the past when incumbents’ approval ratings were low. Former President Reagan, a wealthy Hollywood movie star, took the presidential election in 1980, earning 51 percent of the vote after President Jimmy Carter’s approval rating fell to 34 percent in 1980, likely because of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. While Reagan was ridiculed at the time for running for public office, he won the presidency and is idolized by the Republican Party today as a hero of conservatism. However, Reagan was a long-shot candidate who might not have won if Carter’s approval rate had not fallen.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, a bodybuilder and movie star, is another case of a politician’s unpopularity putting a long-shot candidate in office. Former California Gov. Gray Davis was forced into a vote recall after questions were raised about his re-election in late 2002, and the special election in early 2003 handed Schwarzenegger the position. He had never held an elected office before, but with Davis’ plummeting popularity and statewide skepticism about the growing deficit, Schwarzenegger secured 55 percent of the vote.

North Carolina could do a lot worse than Aiken, and after Congress’ record-breaking do-nothing year, the House could see a revolving door effect. Americans are dissatisfied with both national parties—74 percent said they believe America needs a third party to balance Washington politics, according to an Oct. 11 Gallup poll. A third party takes a lot of effort and organization to form, and because founding a party is a long and complex process, there is no assurance that the end result will be satisfactory.

If Americans really want to see a change, they need to be informed voters. Congressional representatives are major influential players in national policies, so voters should make sure they at least know the names of the candidates for their districts. After so much national frustration with Congress during budget season—and the rest of the year, for that matter—the politicians may be scrambling to keep their seats. If voters really are unhappy, they actually have the chance to fire Congress, as the bumper sticker goes. Raleigh residents should give Aiken a chance in the upcoming election—he may be the first step to action in a gridlocked Congress.

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