Last December, after a series of meetings aimed at securing a coveted endorsement of his presidential campaign, representatives of General Wesley Clark divulged news that was carried worldwide: Madonna had authorized the campaign to let it be known she had met the four-star general and was "very impressed" with him. She stopped short of a full-blown endorsement; that would require further negotiation. But the campaign was nonetheless exultant. "What this does," Lara Bergthold, Clark's political director, explained, "is raise our profile and get people to take a look at our candidate."
Had it happened in an earlier election, the excitement aroused by this not-quite-endorsement might have seemed out of proportion to the event. But celebrity association has taken on a new importance in politics. Each of the Democratic presidential candidates has made a point of courting celebrities, often personally, and each campaign has a staffer charged with outreach to the entertainment community—a "celebrity wrangler."
Landing celebrity endorsements has become nearly as complicated as winning those of traditional power brokers such as union chiefs and congressmen. Many celebrities now employ full-time political advisers and, like any special interest, demand a lengthy vetting process before they will agree to offer public support. Naturally, candidates are eager to trumpet their successes. To date A-list support has been bestowed on John Edwards (Ashton Kutcher, Dennis Hopper), Howard Dean (Paul Newman, Rob Reiner), John Kerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Richard Gephardt (Tony Bennett), and Dennis Kucinich (Willie Nelson). Just as Washington buzzes with rumors of whom various heavyweights will endorse, so the entertainment world carefully tracks the loyalties of such politically minded alpha celebrities as Barbra Streisand and the Hollywood mogul David Geffen.
Like much in Democratic politics today, collecting endorsements from the entertainment world reached its full vogue under Bill Clinton. But more than a reflexive desire to mimic Clinton is driving today's celebrity chase.
Celebrities invariably provide attention, something campaigns constantly need. As the cost of campaigning soars, associating with the famous both helps fundraising and generates what strategists call "earned media"—valuable television airtime that, unlike political advertising, does not have to be paid for. But what really seems to have intensified the process is tangible proof of celebrity's effect on politics: Arnold Schwarzenegger's runaway victory in California. Tom Sheridan, a Democratic lobbyist and a representative of U2's lead singer, Bono, says, "The collateral benefit—or damage—of Schwarzenegger's election is the sense that celebrity matters."
Politicians have traditionally sought out actors and musicians as a way of attracting the youth vote—young people being a group that secretly baffles and terrifies them, leaving them susceptible to the belief that the imprimatur of Madonna and other pop-culture icons can, like some secret handshake, unleash torrents of support. As a member of the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old demographic, I've always thought this notion had a whiff of fraud, or at least of patronizing self-deception. Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, put it most succinctly when he remarked recently, "The only people dim enough to vote for a candidate because Madonna endorsed them generally don't vote."
Over the past decade, however, the public's interest in celebrities has waxed just as its interest in politics has waned; the courting of politically minded celebrities reflects a kind of cosmic convergence. "It's a way to break through to audiences who get their news in nontraditional ways," says Michael Feldman, a Democratic strategist. "A lot of people don't watch the evening news, but they do watch Leno's monologue." Although their approval may or may not directly generate votes, celebrities do generate money, crowds, and enthusiasm—which in the end can amount to the same thing.
No one better epitomizes the politico-celebrity ideal than the New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi, who became a zealous supporter of Al Gore during the 2000 election and established a new benchmark for the ways in which celebrities can help a political campaign. In addition to hosting fundraisers and speaking on Gore's behalf, Bon Jovi energetically went to work soliciting money and involving his friends in the campaign. He traveled with little more than a guitar, often speeding ahead when Gore's tour bus was running late to hold a restless crowd with a spontaneous acoustic set. "Jon was the ultimate example of loyalty and dedication from someone who was willing to leverage his celebrity on behalf of a political cause," says Feldman, who at the time was Gore's traveling chief of staff. Such was Bon Jovi's dedication to the candidate that he famously enlivened Gore's postrecount concession party, a sullen affair until he summoned Tom Petty and Stevie Wonder to what turned into a late-night bash. Bon Jovi is, unsurprisingly, much sought after among Democratic candidates.
Top celebrities stand to become an even more valuable asset in this election. Prompted by Howard Dean's astonishing ability to raise money online, political campaigns are rapidly evolving to become more heavily Internet-focused. E-mail databases have become the new coin of the realm. For all the buzz surrounding Madonna's eventual endorsement of Clark, which she gave several weeks after her initial public approval, it is her vast database of fans that seems to be the real prize. The thousands of e-mail addresses belonging to Madonna's fan-club members almost certainly represent a means of tapping possible Clark supporters and contributors; likewise, a letter of support from Madonna distributed to Clark's own e-mail list would add glitz and guarantee additional media attention. "Sending out a letter is not as visible" as a public endorsement, a Clark staffer told me, "but it could potentially have a much more far-reaching impact for the campaign."
Even in areas of policy, certain celebrities have established themselves as powerful presences to be consulted and wooed. Following the success of his debt-relief campaign in 2002, Bono established a foundation called DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa). On World AIDS Day the whole slate of Democratic candidates solicited Bono's opinion and coordinated their messages with his before issuing public statements.
Despite intense hustling in the run-up to the Democratic primaries (the Bon Jovi camp, for example, was rumored to be unhappy when Clark erroneously took its support for granted), the full impact of celebrities on this political cycle probably won't become clear until the general election. The economics of campaigning make it difficult for a primary candidate to hold the kind of star-studded events that bring in large donations: even if a top entertainer agrees to waive a fee, the costs of sound, lighting, and the requisite union labor are often prohibitive.
Once money and support have coalesced behind a nominee, however, celebrities can prove an indispensable source of cash. Andy Spahn, the political adviser to David Geffen, estimates that Geffen raised $15 to $20 million for Bill Clinton and associated Democratic causes during the Clinton Administration—putting him among the very top fundraisers. So far Geffen, like Clinton, has chosen to remain on the sidelines this time. But even the potential for his support is enough to make all the Democratic candidates—except Kucinich—check in personally with Spahn on a regular basis. Celebrities can be expected to take a much more active role than they have in years past in their effort to defeat the incumbent. "The one very real, discernible difference [in Hollywood] this year," Spahn says, "is the unanimity of desire to defeat George Bush."
Current polls show that more young voters would support Bush than any Democratic rival. Perhaps because of this, candidates have stepped up their youth-oriented appeals; in an ironic video filmed for a CNN/Rock the Vote "youth forum" in November, the straitlaced General Clark is seen earnestly discussing the merits of the flamboyant rap duo OutKast with young fans. "The OutKast tie connected us to a younger demographic," Lara Bergthold explained to me during a phone interview one afternoon in early December. "It was a tongue-in-cheek way of saying we get it." She paused. "Can you hear me? Do you hear that?" She held her phone up to a television tuned to MTV. OutKast had just been nominated for six Grammy Awards, and as the group's unofficial champion, ironic or otherwise, Clark was enjoying an unexpected lift: he had just popped up on the MTV show Total Request Live. Bergthold returned triumphantly to the line. "Well," she exclaimed, "there you go."