Celebrity endorsements can boost presidential candidates' coffers and popularity

"The least-qualified person to ask about the election is an actor," U.S. comedian Jon Lovitz told CBC in a recent interview, but that hasn’t stopped Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders from hitting up Hollywood for celebrity endorsements that they hope will boost their popularity and their campaign funds.

Hollywood has been helping raise money for Democrats since 1930s

The famous Johnie's Coffee Shop, which has been used as a set on many films since it closed 16 years ago, was recently transformed into Bernie's in honour of the Democratic presidential candidate by a group of Hollywood production designers. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

When you're stuck behind the velvet ropes of a Hollywood movie premiere competing against hundreds of other journalists shouting questions at the stars swishing their way down the red carpet, it's almost impossible to get them to stop. Unless you throw out a question that gets to the heart of an issue they truly care about — such as, "Who are you going to vote for?"

"I've been a fan of Hillary since I was in college," said Yvette Nicole Brown, one of the stars of the now-cancelled TV series Community, at a recent red carpet event when asked.

"I do like Bernie, I think he's got a good heart, and that's important in a politician. But as for me, Hillary's getting my vote."

Actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi wouldn't tell the CBC who's getting his vote, but here's a hint:

"Not Donald Trump," he stage whispered, with a hand covering his mouth. "Eventually, hopefully the rest of us sane people will outnumber those people in the general election. That is what we are praying for! Or we're all coming to Canada!"

Who in Tinseltown is supporting whom? 0:32

Republican actors do better in office

It's no secret that Hollywood is liberal with an "l" the size of those in the Hollywood sign. However, it's Hollywood Republicans who've actually gotten more political traction, according to University of Southern California history professor Steven Ross. That was the thesis of his book Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.

"Even though the Hollywood left has been more numerous and more visible, the Hollywood right has had a great impact on American life, and that is, in fact, because very few Democrats have sought higher office," he said.

'I've been a fan of Hillary since I was in college,' actor Yvette Nicole Brown, who starred in the TV series Community, said when asked whom she's supporting in the presidential election. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's not the case for Republicans, Ross says, pointing to three actors who've held public office: George Murphy, who was a California senator from 1964 to 1970; Ronald Reagan, who served two terms as governor from 1967 to 1975 and two as president from 1981 to 1989; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was governor from 2003 to 2011. 

Hollywood Democrats, Ross says, have preferred to lobby and to fundraise, and at that, they've excelled.

Clinton fundraiser-in-chief George Clooney recently had to defend charging more than $350,000 US per couple for a seat at the head table at a star-studded soiree at his L.A. home. That amount might be jaw-dropping, but the fact is that Hollywood has been a lucrative stop on the Democratic campaign trail since the 1930s.  

Actor George Clooney has hosted several fundraisers for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. One recent event saw couples paying $350,000 to attend. (Axel Schmidt/Associated Press)

"Hollywood is particularly important in fundraising because it is a one-stop shop," Ross said. "When you come to Hollywood, you've got everyone assembled in one close area. And celebrities like to be with other celebrities, so they're willing to pay several hundred thousand dollars for a couple to go to George Clooney's for an intimate brunch with the candidate."

Don't ask an actor

Do celebrity endorsements work? Actor and comedian Jon Lovitz certainly doesn't think so.

I think the least-qualified person to ask about the election is an actor.- Jon Lovitz , comedian, actor

"I think the least-qualified person to ask about the election is an actor," Lovitz said in an interview with CBC News at a recent red carpet event. "Just because I'm known as an actor doesn't mean you should listen to me and who to vote for."

But Ross disagrees. He cites studies that found Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama in 2007 won him about one million votes.

"They were able to show that Oprah's endorsement of Obama actually helped him get the nomination, and without her endorsement, he might have lost the nomination to Hillary," Ross said.  

While Hollywood has a long tradition of supporting Democrats, it's the Republican actors who have historically made it in politics, says USC history professor Steven Ross. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

In the era of social media and limitless political donations, celebrity endorsements are more crucial than ever, he said.

"You need eyeballs and you need money, and celebrity endorsements can get you both," said Ross.

Clinton has deployed an entire red carpet's worth of actors‚ including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman. Sanders has attracted a smaller but enthusiastic following, securing the support of stars such as Danny Devito, Spike Lee and Sarah Silverman. 

Trump is toxic for most of Hollywood

Hollywood has largely shunned Trump, with the exception of a few celebrities, including Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan and Tila Tequila.

"I think that even the Hollywood right, the conservatives, are not by and large as conservative as Donald Trump," Ross said. "They see him as a racist, a misogynist and as someone who is not presidential."

While Sanders might not have racked up the most celebrity endorsements, he might actually have benefited the most.

"It gave him visibility," Ross said. "Hillary Clinton was already a known quantity, Donald Trump was a known quantity, but Bernie Sanders was this relatively unknown socialist-turned-Democrat from Vermont.

"And the fact that he was getting people like Sarah Silverman, Susan Sarandon, the left of Hollywood, coming out for him ... I think helped his campaign early on. If a celebrity — particularly a celebrity who you admire — says, 'I'm really throwing my support behind this candidate,' what it is likely to do is have people that admire that celebrity give that candidate a second look, or maybe even a first look."

Bernie branding

That's what happened recently at a Sanders fundraiser in Los Angeles.

Chances are you've never had a cup of coffee at Johnie's Coffee Shop Restaurant — it closed 16 years ago — but there's a good chance you've seen it. It's still used as a set for Hollywood productions and has been featured in popular films like The Big Lebowski and American History X

Bernie Sanders has garnered the support of celebrities such as Danny Devito, Spike Lee and Sarah Silverman while Hillary Clinton has George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio on her side. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Recently, it got a facelift thanks to a group of Sanders-supporting production designers. They created a new sign for the coffee shop in the original font, and with a small crowd of Sanders supporters gathered below them counting down, they removed the cardboard cover to reveal it. The iconic landmark has now been re-branded as Bernie's Coffee Shop.

"If you look at political propaganda throughout the ages, the artists were there to foment that," said production designer Jeremy White.

I've seen so many murals and signs and memes and pieces of art for Bernie, so I think the artists are on his side.- Jeremy White, production designer

He says so-called below-the-line Hollywood industry workers have been just as active — and just as valuable — as their more famous co-workers.

"I think we really do have a revolution on our hands when all of the artists have banded together," he said. "I've seen so many murals and signs and memes and pieces of art for Bernie, so I think the artists are on his side."

But the event wouldn't have attracted any media — or the dozens of new supporters inside the coffee shop writing cheques to the Sanders campaign — if several celebrities hadn't been tipped to attend.

Former Party of Five actor Andrew Keegan speaks at a small Sanders rally in Los Angeles. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"This campaign is a confirmation of all those great things that people are doing in the world!" former Party of Five actor Andrew Keegan told the crowd assembled outside the newly christened Bernie's.

Keegan was the only celebrity among those listed on the press release announcing the event who actually showed up — aside from actor Frances Fisher, who helped organize the unveiling. She acknowledged that baiting the media with a lengthy list of celebrities was a way to get them to attend the event.

"If we put out the press that there are going to be certain celebrities here … [people] are going to show up," she said.

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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