Hollywood Hedges Its Bets

With some Democrats wondering whether either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama can be elected president, the 2008 primaries are likely to produce a lot of strategic voting.

From the archives:

"The Hollywood Campaign" (September 2004)
Want big money to get elected to national office? If you're a Democrat, you need to head for the hills—Beverly Hills. A miner's map for the liberal Gold Rush. By Eric Alterman

LOS ANGELES—The Tinseltown tussle between the presidential campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama showcases a serious issue in the Democratic race. "There are questions about the electability of both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. "Some Democrats wonder if either one can win."

David Geffen, a Hollywood mogul who used to be close to the Clintons, recently hosted a fundraiser for Obama that raised more than $1 million. That didn't sit well with the Clinton campaign. "The word is that she was telling her friends, 'You can't give to everybody; you've got to just give to me,' " said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California. "That didn't go down so well, because a number of people in Hollywood have said that it's a good thing for the Democratic Party to have a robust debate."

And robust is exactly what we're getting.

In an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Geffen called the senator from New York "incredibly polarizing" and said that Republicans think "she's the easiest to defeat." Speaking of both Hillary and Bill Clinton, he said, "Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it's troubling."

The Clinton campaign pushed back hard, issuing this challenge: "If Senator Obama is indeed sincere about his repeated claims to change the tone of our politics, he should immediately denounce these remarks, remove Mr. Geffen from his campaign, and return his money." The reaction signaled to Democrats that the Clinton team will respond just as aggressively when Republicans attack their candidate.

Only a few days earlier, Obama had denounced what he called "the slash-and-burn politics that have become the custom in Washington." Nevertheless, his campaign took Clinton's bait and issued a slashing attack: "It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom." The Obama campaign went on to charge Sen. Clinton with accepting the endorsement of a South Carolina state senator "who said if Barack Obama were to win the nomination, he would drag down the rest of the Democratic Party, because 'he's black.' "

In a polarized political environment, the primaries are likely to produce a lot of strategic voting. "Democrats want a winner," Rothenberg said, "and it's not just the party insiders and the political consultants. It's real people, real voters. So I think electability will be a crucial issue." The issue goes beyond whether Americans are willing to elect a president who is female or African-American. It extends to questions about whether Clinton has too much political baggage and whether Obama is really a different kind of politician. The Geffen controversy has put all of those issues on the table.

Hollywood observer Harvey Levin, managing editor of TMZ.com, said, "I think Hillary Clinton's Hollywood base is crumbling. It's crumbling partly because of what she's doing and partly because Barack Obama is magic in this town." Obama has something Hollywood is uniquely qualified to recognize—star power. He drew the ultimate A-list Hollywood crowd to his fundraiser, and he came away with as much money as a sitting president could expect to raise.

On the other hand, Kaplan said, "I think that whatever people's reservations are about Senator Clinton, it's not going to stop them from giving money to her. It is going to stop them from giving exclusively to her. And certainly they have in mind a number of issues about her. Electability is one of them."

When voters see Candidate A and Candidate B attacking each other, the benefit often goes to Candidate C. "If Senator Clinton and Senator Obama were engaged in a day in, day out bashing of each other, I think it would probably help somebody like John Edwards, who could stand above the fray and act presidential," Rothenberg said. "But we're a long way from that."

Do the polls say anything about who is electable? In February, five national polls pitted Clinton and Obama against the Republican front-runners, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. The results in each survey were close—mostly within the margin of error, meaning that nobody in the upper ranks looks unelectable. But nobody is a sure winner, either.