Hollywood stars offer limelight, money to presidential candidates
Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney have thrown money and aimed the celebrity spotlight on President Barack Obama. Donald Trump holds Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on a pedestal with supportive tweets.But whether celebrity attention or money can influence the outcome of this election is unclear.
Hollywood experts have chimed in to discuss whether celebrities can sway the vote. The ayes and nays have been tallied, counted and recounted, and some Hollywood experts responded with a resounding … maybe.
Obama has taken the lead in Hollywood, clinching the biggest celebrity following against Romney based on Federal Election Commission data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Almost 200 celebrities have donated to Obama’s campaign this election cycle. Romney tops off with nine celebrity contributions.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s biggest celebrity supporters are Vince McMahon and Donald Trump, who have also reached the campaign donation limit.
FEC regulations set a limit of $2,500 per candidate per federal candidate and $30,800 to a national party committee representing a candidate in the 2012 election cycle. The maximum any person can give in a two-year election cycle is $117,000.
When celebrities can no longer contribute campaign money, some turn to their personal Twitter accounts to endorse a presidential candidate.
Business tycoon Donald Trump uses Twitter as his soapbox, condemning Obama’s practices and praising Romney’s. Trump has more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter alone, but his political influence is unknown.
Sharon Waxman, founder and CEO of the online Hollywood news site The Wrap, said celebrities on Twitter have the power to solidify their followers’ viewpoints or encourage political curiosity.
“I think in general when you have your own point of view validated, it tends to reinforce that view,” Waxman said. “It’s not likely to change your view, but it is going to make you more aware.”
Trump not only uses his celebrity to draw attention to the Nov. 6 presidential election, but he has also reached out to other celebrities who have not yet supported a candidate.
Trump tweeted Kim Kardashian Sept. 17 to tell her he would explain why she should vote for Romney.
Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com and long-time Hollywood publicist, said social media sites like Twitter draw attention to celebrities’ views.
“Celebrities tend to be very powerful on social media,” Bragman said. “So that’s where a real impact comes in. If George Clooney tweets something from the Obama campaign, you can bet it has power.”
Trump and Bill Maher duke it out over who has the strongest political opinion on Twitter. Trump and Maher have a combined total of more than 3 million Twitter followers. With so many followers, somebody must be paying attention.
Maher uses comedy to focus attention on his politics, cutting down Romney’s proposals and shelving them as jokes.
Trump sticks to his iconic “The Apprentice” no-sympathy opinion on Obama. He tweets that the nation’s deficit and general failures are a direct result of Obama’s administration.
Trump also made sure to inform his followers of his possible influence in the presidential election. If viewers missed Obama’s reference to Trump in the first presidential debate, Trump made sure to point it out.
As celebrities use their fame and names to endorse candidates, some Hollywood experts say a negative backlash is possible.
President Stan Rosenfield of PR firm Stan Rosenfield and Associates said celebrity endorsement can help political candidates like Obama and Romney, but it can also hurt political campaigns.
“When John Kerry was running against George Bush, John Kerry had an enormous celebrity backing and I think that might have hurt John Kerry,” Rosenfield said. “He didn’t win.”
Rosenfield said that, if all celebrity endorsements worked, they would work all the time.
However, celebrity endorsements may also help voters better understand politics.
Author of “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics” Steven Ross said some celebrities have “gravitas,” or exude importance because of roles they have played on the big screen.
“What celebrities can do is actually get you interested,” Ross said. “And if they get you interested, then maybe you’ll actually begin to pay attention and actually read a little bit about what their policies are, what their platforms are and actually think about it.”
Twitter followers may not agree with Trump or Maher’s tweets, but disagreements can at least help get the conversation going.
Ross also said some celebrity endorsements of political candidates are enough to help a candidate win. He said Obama’s victory in 2008 was “a victory greatly aided by Oprah Winfrey.”
“If I were running for president, if I could have only one endorsement, it would be Oprah Winfrey,” Ross said.
However, Rosenfield said celebrity endorsements alone aren’t enough to help a political candidate win.
“I really don’t think someone is going to say, ‘Well, I’m going to vote for this candidate because a certain actor endorsed him,’” he said.
For example, Maher and Trump live tweeted during the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate, and they have both agreed to do the same for Tuesday’s second presidential debate. Both celebrities water down the debate rhetoric, insert an opinion and send it out to their followers in 140 characters or less. The tweets may not sway voters, but they draw attention to the debate and the election.
The attention may benefit political candidates, but a political campaign doesn’t have much of a chance to succeed without campaign advertisements, Rosenfield said. Celebrity donations are big contributors to campaign ads.
“People watch media, people read newspapers, you see things online. All these cost money, and we’re not talking chump change,” he said. “We’re talking millions upon millions.”
Hollywood celebrities, television actors and musicians have contributed more than half a million dollars to the Obama and Romney campaigns, according to FEC data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The center monitors a list of about 500 celebrities who have donated to previous elections. Nearly 400 of these celebrities have contributed to the 2012 presidential campaigns.
Along with direct campaign contributions, Hollywood celebrities have also donated huge sums to super PACs that endorse presidential candidates.
Super PACs can raise an unlimited amount of money to advocate for or against political candidates according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Morgan Freeman and Maher each donated a million dollars to Priorities USA Action, a liberal super PAC that supports Obama.
Chairman and CEO of WWE Vince McMahon gave $75,000 to Romney-backing super PAC Restore Our Future.
Some celebrities like George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker do not shy away from voicing their political support through their celebrity and funding. Both stars have held fundraising events for Obama’s campaign.
“TV commercials cost money,” Rosenfield said. “And that has to be paid for somewhere. And if you’re able, through your celebrity, to be able to generate funds for your candidate, that goes a long way in helping.”
Since Oct. 1, Obama has raised nearly $500 million toward his 2012 campaign and Romney has raised almost $300 million. Both Obama and Romney are expected to exceed $700 million dollars in campaign money by the election.
Whether Trump’s tweets or Maher’s money will win this election, Hollywood experts simply shrug in uncertainty.
Reach reporter Tanya Parker at Tanya.Parker@shns.com or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.