Rarely have the limits and power of celebrity politics been more evident than during the 2008 presidential campaign, as two candidates struggled to distinguish themselves from a pack of rivals. Fred Thompson believed that in a field of eleven Republican hopefuls, his fame and cinematic image could propel him all the way to the White House. Likewise, Oprah Winfrey hoped that her endorsement of Illinois’ young but charismatic Senator Barack Obama would boost his prospects for defeating Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated that a hardworking movie star with a strong image and well-organized campaign team could, in the right circumstances, overcome the lack of deep party ties. Thompson attempted to take celebrity politics a step further by initially relying almost solely on the appeal of his tough cinematic persona. While never a star of Schwarzenegger’s magnitude, the former U.S. attorney and two-term senator from Tennessee (1994–2003) appeared in more than two dozen feature films and television movies, playing a range of leaders: a U.S. president, CIA director, White House chief of staff, and rear admiral. Most Americans, however, knew him for his longtime role as tough-on-crime District Attorney Arthur Branch in the popular Law and Order television series.
At first Thompson’s primarily celebrity-driven strategy seemed to work. He polled higher numbers in the months preceding his formal declaration