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Why the Stars Didn't Align for Donald Trump's RNC

Donald Trump, like past presumptive Republican nominees, has struggled to seduce Hollywood's elite to participate in their election year pageant.
Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump speaks at the Saint Andelm College New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, New Hampshire June 13, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARYTIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty ImagesTIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP - Getty Images

As recently as July 5th, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump had been touting a uniquely star-studded Republican National Convention in Cleveland, with his celebrity friends like Tom Brady, Mike Tyson and Bobby Knight all rumored to appear.

Flash forward to day one of the RNC Monday, with the line-up of speakers firmly established, and a far different picture has come into focus. Although Knight is reportedly going to appear in a video, most of the other big names floated by the Trump campaign in recent months haven't materialized. Even former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who was initially listed in the program, has since said he never planned to participate. And Drew Carey, probably the most famous conservative Cleveland native, is steering clear.

Trump has put a characteristically positive spin on the slate of guests — which is dominated by members of his own family — during a recent appearance on Fox News. "We are totally over-booked. We have great speakers, we have winners, we have people that aren't only political people," he said. "We have a lot of people that are just champions and winners."

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Of course, with his long history as a tabloid fixture and reality show star, Trump is arguably the biggest celebrity that will appear on any stage during either party's convention. Yet, he, like past presumptive Republican nominees, has struggled to seduce Hollywood's elite to make cameos in the GOP's election year pageant.

There are different schools of thought about whether celebrity endorsements make a difference in the first place. But at the conventions, at which candidates get a rare opportunity to enjoy free prime-time exposure to a national audience, there seems to be a premium put on glitz and glamour, even among notoriously anti-Hollywood politicos.

In 2000, there was a lot of buzz generated by word that action movie legend and noted conservative Bruce Willis would be introducing a video segment at that year's Republican convention, but he eventually backed out — and later spoke very critically of his party's 2012 nominee for president, Mitt Romney.

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In 2012, the GOP thought they scored a coup when they booked Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood to deliver a major speech on the last night of the convention. But his off-message, unscripted routine, which featured the "Dirty Harry" star talking to an empty chair filled by an imaginary President Barack Obama, was widely viewed as a debacle.

Veteran actor Jon Voight, a late convert to staunch conservatism, didn't fare much better. He scored headlines for ranting against the press for much of that year's RNC, and for casting aspersions on the president's upbringing by accusing both of his then-deceased parents of being devout Marxists.

That same year, the Democrats boasted A-listers Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria, as well as Kal Penn, co-star of the beloved "Harold and Kumar" cult comedies, who put his acting career on hold to work full-time for the Obama White House. The DNC also featured a 17-minute documentary heralding the achievements of Obama's first term, narrated by Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks.

According to international branding expert Karen Post, it should surprise no one that Democrats have had an easier time recruiting famous figures.

"Hollywood and the many of the big players have been historically liberal. It's human nature for most in the industry to follow the pack even if their personal views may differ. Why bite the hand that feeds you?" she told NBC News Monday. "For a celebrity to take the stage at the GOP [convention], it will take courage, thick skin and likely a career cash reserve."

Still, she thinks the desire of both parties to make a play for the star who can make a big splash is irresistible because their presence can guarantee coverage, can appeal to voters' aspirations, connect with them emotionally and provide more sheer entertainment than your average lawmaker.

Related: Cleveland Braces for a Controversial RNC

"It matters because entertainers help build a bridge to politics," Corey Ealons, who worked as a spokesman on both Obama campaigns for president and now is a consultant for Vox Global, told NBC News on Monday. "Democrats have figured out how to use entertainers in a way to help translate public policy."

Indeed, this election cycle has seen celebrities take on very outspoken roles on behalf of Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and, maybe especially, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Even if efforts on his behalf from movie stars like Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon ultimately came up short, there's no question they helped enhance Sanders' platform's exposure.

Ealons believes the Republicans risk botching a third straight convention if they don't right this ship fast. "The convention has already started in a sense of disarray because of the comical way in which the [Mike] Pence VP roll-out occurred," he said. Also, with Trump, who has been more publicly preoccupied with securing celebrity endorsements than his peers — particularly in the sports world — the sting of being snubbed could seem more pronounced.

His campaign had long promised an "unconventional" convention, unlike any audiences have ever seen. But without many traditional party leaders or celebrities with broad reach, they have settled for the likes of former "Happy Days" star Scott Baio and ex-model Antonio Sabato, Jr.

Baio has been a stalwart conservative for years (he backed Scott Walker during the primaries), and in recent years he's distinguished himself more for his extreme rhetoric (he's suggested that President Obama is a Muslim who wants to "eliminate" the country and has shared images of Hillary Clinton on social media plastered with the C-word) than his acting.

Sabato, Jr., who has admitted to being largely apolitical throughout his career as a soap opera actor, underwear model and reality TV star, has recently taken to espousing far right opinions on social media, too. He's suggested that both the president and Clinton should be shipped to the detention center in Guantanamo Bay because of their pro-gun control positions, and has lobbied Trump to hire him for his "executive protection team."

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Still, with the possible exception of Eastwood, there are not many examples of non-politicians' behavior or speeches overshadowing the nominee at their own conventions. In other words, it will be up to Trump,not his surrogates, to deliver his message to national audiences.

Ealons thinks that for this convention to be judged a success, Trump must deliver a speech that provides more policy details, unites his party and conveys the idea that the GOP has a "big tent."

"If he blows it Thursday night, the election could be over Friday morning," he said.

"This presidential campaign is unlike any other. Everyday old rules and the mold have been broken, and the results have been surprising too" added Post in a note of caution. "Trump is the GOP candidate. What this says is anything is possible. The old crystal ball to predict anything is very 2012."