Broadway. Hollywood. The names alone evoke glamour, wealth, and a world apart. You might expect that to be anathema to politicians claiming to put the needs of ordinary Americans first. Yet the association appears to be more beneficial for Democrats than it is problematic, at least during the 2016 campaign.
On Monday night, stars of stage and screen came together at a New York event headlined by former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton. Figures such as Lena Dunham, Helen Mirren, and Billy Crystal spoke out about their concerns over a Donald Trump presidency and urged the sold-out crowd of 1,700 to support Hillary Clinton. Jake Gyllenhaal and Jon Hamm acted out an extract from “It Can’t Happen Here,” a 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel about a fascist winning the White House. Former “Hamilton” actress Renée Elise Goldsberry and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performed one section of the musical, rewritten for the 2016 election campaign.
Both Clintons spoke at the event. The former president tackled the issue of exclusion, stating that, “Inclusive societies work better than us-and-them,” as The Washington Post reports. While the exclusive nature of the event may suggest that Democrats are out of touch, some say fundraising events with celebrities have significant benefits for Democrats.
“Many voters … care a lot about their favorite celebrity, so they emulate them in lots of different ways,” Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “These folks are celebrities in part because they’ve been able to [cultivate] a fan base that will be loyal to them,” she continues, saying they give off star wattage that their chosen candidates can also bask in.
Celebrity endorsement is unlikely to be the deciding factor, however. “Most voters cast their ballots primarily for other reasons, including the candidates’ personalities, policy stances and party affiliations,” Eric Kasper, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the author of a book about the intersection of politics and pop culture, told the university's media in November.
Voters understand that harnessing celebrities' wallets, or their power to open others', is just a part of the process. Campaigns are an expensive business, with the need for field operations, canvassing, and innumerable phone calls. And Hollywood is a logical place to look for substantial cash inflows.
“Hollywood money has long trended reliably liberal. Democratic candidates – at least those with a high enough profile – know they can make a stop in Southern California and come away with more cash than they'd find many other places,” writes Viveca Novak, the editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, in an email to the Monitor.
And while the small size of the gathering would have prevented most people from gaining access, the ticket price was not in itself prohibitive. A Clinton aide told the Post that the least expensive tickets were available for $45. The majority of attendees paid up to $2,700, though some contributed substantially more. Donations went to the Hillary Victory Fund, which channels the money to the Clinton campaign, as well as national and state Democratic parties.
Secretary Clinton, in a video message recorded for the gathering, highlighted the uplifting role of art, describing it as telling “who we are and where we’re going and what we’re striving for and who we will be” – perhaps an attempt to emphasize the headliners' role as inspirations, rather than cultural elites.
But not everyone wants Hollywood and Broadway entertainers to guide America into the future. For conservatives, Hollywood entertainers – who tend to lean Democratic – are often seen as rebelling against "traditional" lifestyles. By tying themselves so closely to celebrities, Democrats may run the risk of seeming out-of-touch with middle America's family values.
In 2014, a CBS poll found that 61 percent of Americans felt that Hollywood had too much influence on American politics. The trend was particularly marked among non-Democrats: 77 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of independents considered Hollywood’s influence excessive.
Many of those who object to the links between celebrities and Democrats are unlikely to vote for Clinton in November, Gillespie points out. But what independents think could tip the balance. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found that independent voters were giving Clinton the edge in key swing states Florida, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.
Ms. Novak suggests that striking a balance between Hollywood money and real-world appeal may be a challenge for Democrats. But they are not alone. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, often boasts about his wealth, which he says is in the billions.
“[Hollywood fundraising] hurts the perception that Democrats are more in touch with middle-class voters [than Republicans], but the GOP may look even worse to voters who care about whether their candidates are truly representative of them,” she states.