In this election, the biggest celebrities are running for office.
Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain and his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have upstaged showbiz celebrities, edging them off the covers of tabloids, dominating their primetime television ratings and even ranking ahead of them in best-dressed lists. (On Wednesday, People magazine rated Michelle Obama eighth for her attire.)
But that doesn’t necessarily mean your traditional celebrities aren’t having their say, either by publicly endorsing their candidate of choice or by helping to raise money.
On Tuesday night, Barbra Streisand headlined a fundraiser for Obama in Beverly Hills that raised $9 million. Among those in attendance were Leonardo DiCaprio, Steven Spielberg, Will Ferrell, Jodie Foster and Jamie Lee Curtis.
The event, in microcosm, reflected how celebrities and politics often mix in an election. While it raised a large sum of money for Obama and gave many famous people a chance to argue for their candidate, McCain used the event as ammo.
“He talks about siding with the people — siding with the people — just before he flew off to Hollywood for a fundraiser with Barbra Streisand and his celebrity friends,” McCain said at a rally Tuesday in Vienna, Ohio.
In earlier campaign ads, McCain called Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” and associated him with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Since Palin’s nomination, similar barbs have been levied at the Alaska governor. (Palin gave one of her first interview to People magazine.)
Obama’s campaign struck back with a new ad Wednesday that labels McCain “Washington’s biggest celebrity,” a claim the McCain camp called absurd. (A spokesman for Obama declined to elaborate on how the campaign regards celebrity endorsements.)
When stars become pawns
Celebrities, meanwhile, have seemed little more than pawns in the image battles between McCain and Obama. Hilton joked last month about her involvement by making a mock campaign ad for the Web site Funny Or Die.
Spears, on the other hand, has been mum. At the recent MTV Video Music Awards, host Russell Brand pleaded “Please, America, elect Barack Obama. On behalf of the world.” Spears, who in 2003 memorably said it’s best to “trust our president in every decision,” sat quietly during Brand’s political rant, while many in the liberal Los Angeles crowd cheered.
This summer, many music acts have supported Obama. Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles performed at the kickoff concert to the Democratic convention in Denver. Others were in Denver, too: among them, John Legend, Melissa Etheridge, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.
Affleck’s friend Matt Damon drew headlines, himself, last week when he compared Palin’s candidacy to “a bad Disney movie” in an interview with The Associated Press.
Veteran Hollywood publicist Michael Levine cautions Obama in surrounding himself with too much celebrity support.
“I would advise the Obama team to significantly downplay Hollywood celebrities because all of this celebrity glitz and glamour reinforces an emerging negative view of Obama,” said Levine, adding that it’s been “detrimental” to his campaign.
Celebs in McCain’s corner
Entertainers have, of course, traditionally backed Democratic candidates, but McCain has several luminaries in his corner as well. (The Center for Responsive Politics reports the entertainment industry has donated $21.4 million to Democrats in 2008, but just $7.1 million to Republicans.)
At the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., were Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Pat Boone, LeAnn Rimes and, of course, Fred Thompson, the politician-actor who earlier ran for the Republican nomination.
Rocker, author and well-known hunter Ted Nugent has also voiced his support of McCain-Palin. Nugent says his comments are well-informed, but accepts his sometimes outlandish remarks can be used to both help and hurt his cause.
“We’re just citizens,” said Nugent. “We have more visibility to our spoken word than our fellow working-class citizens. This celebrity thing is a terrible condition in that it tends to give actual credence to our statements instead of just looking at them as an individual’s statements.”
Brian Rogers, a spokesman for McCain, said, “There’s no problem with having folks support you from the entertainment industry. Sen. McCain is proud to have the support of Sylvester Stallone and others, but it’s obviously nothing compared to Barack Obama’s celebrity support.”
Political films could play a role
Republicans will also soon get the rare chance to view a film that lampoons the left. On Oct. 3, “An American Carol” will be released, in which Kevin Farley plays an obvious parody of Michael Moore.
Moore is releasing his own election year film, “Slacker Uprising,” for free online on Sept. 23. Moore has said that the film, which examines young voter involvement in the 2004 election, is meant to rally support for Obama: “This film, really isn’t for anybody other than the choir,” he said.
The most anticipated political film this fall, though, might be Oliver Stone’s “W.” Josh Brolin plays a young President Bush in the film, which is expected to be highly critical of the administration.
But will any of these movies, endorsements or celebrity fundraisers alter the results in November?
Conventional wisdom holds that they won’t, but one study suggests it’s possible.
Released this month by the University of Maryland, the study found that Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama may have netted him approximately 1 million additional votes in the Democratic primary. It also notes that few celebrities have the influence of Winfrey, but that her impact was somewhat quantifiable because of her history of boosting sales for endorsed products.
Economics professor Craig Garthwaite, who conducted the study with professor Timothy Moore, said he suspected celebrity endorsements would have a lesser effect in the national election, where policy differences between candidates are more pronounced. But he does think celebrities have more influence than they’re often credited for.
“I would kind of say they’re underrated,” said Garthwaite. “It’s hard to think of a reason why politicians would take the time to gather these endorsements if they’re likely going to have no effect.”