At the Polls, Do Celebrity Endorsements Matter?
ROBERT SMITH, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Robert Smith.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen.
You can forget about Iowa and New Hampshire. Right now, much of the political action is here in Hollywood. This weekend, Oprah Winfrey is holding a star-studded bash for Barack Obama. A few days after that, Magic Johnson is throwing a fundraising shindig for Hillary Clinton. And that got us thinking.
SMITH: You know, stars are just like us. They drink coffee just like us. They give $2,300 to their favorite candidate just like us. But when celebrities go political, does anyone know or even care? I went to star central, the streets of Hollywood, to find out.
I'm going to give you a name and you have to tell me which presidential candidate you think they support.
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
SMITH: What about Martha Stewart?
Unidentified Woman: Hillary Clinton.
SMITH: You nailed it. Did you know this or were you just guessing?
Unidentified Woman: No. I just guessed it.
Mr. CHRIS GRAVE(ph): I'm Chris Grave from Los Angeles.
SMITH: Who do you think Adam Sandler supports for president?
Mr. GRAVE: The thought of Adam Sandler bringing a political being ever entered into my mind, I would say it wouldn't be McCain, it would be Giuliani.
SMITH: Absolutely. He's a Giuliani man. And it's a New York thing.
Mr. GRAVE: Oh, okay. There you go.
Ms. GABRIELLE HARRIS(ph): My name is Gabrielle Harris and I'm from Huntington Beach.
SMITH: Now, you're interested in politics. Are you interested in who celebrities endorse?
Ms. HARRIS: It doesn't matter personally to me, but I do see how, in their position, they have sway. It's the same thing when celebrities go environmental or they go anti-war.
Ms. MONIQUE GONZALES(ph): I'm Monique Gonzales from North Hollywood.
SMITH: Does it matter to you at all what Halle Berry or Martha Stewart or Adam Sandler thinks?
Ms. GONZALES: No.
SMITH: They're powerful people. They get to actually meet these candidates, shake their hands.
Ms. GONZALES: The answer is still no.
SMITH: But what about the biggie - Oprah Winfrey? Any influence at all on you?
Ms. GONZALES: Absolutely, if she talks about things that really mean something and she is genuine about making a change in the world.
Unidentified Man: There might be a celebrity or two that I might listen to. You know, George Clooney is such a cool guy that maybe I would listen to him, but I don't think I would.
SMITH: Well, do you know who George Clooney gave money to?
Unidentified Man: Clinton.
SMITH: Barack Obama.
Unidentified Man: It's 50-50 on those two, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: Unless it's Adam Sandler.
COHEN: For more now on the political power of celebrities, we turn to Steve Ross. He is a history professor at the University of Southern California and author of the upcoming book, "Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics."
Welcome to the program.
Professor STEVE ROSS (History, University of Southern California): Thank you, Alex.
COHEN: Let's, first of all, talk about money. You know, money is money. Do you think that any of the presidential candidates care whether or not the person that's giving them money is famous or not?
Prof. ROSS: The bottom line is the bottom line. It's just that fame and money often go together. So what really matters more than anything else is being able to afford the kind of media coverage you need to run for the presidency. And that means getting in wealthy people as your donors, or getting in masses, as Barack has tried to do, masses of smaller donors. But what they care for in the end is how much money they get. And it's still a lot easier to get one donation of a max amount than it is to get a hundred of a smaller amount.
COHEN: Now, what about influence? We just heard from a number of folks who said, oh, I don't care what the stars are thinking. You know, there's that women who said I don't care, oh, unless it's Oprah. Do people care, you know, who their favorite stars are leaning towards?
Prof. ROSS: Well, it's interesting you ask that because from the beginning of presidential elections in the 20th - well, really from the 1920s on, parties on both sides have been courting celebrities. Initially in New York when Harding and Coolidge were running, they created a theatrical league and got Broadway stars to endorse them. From 1924 you had Babe Ruth and a number of sports stars endorsing political candidates. So that's gone on for a long time.
Where someone like Oprah Winfrey differs is that Oprah has a huge audience of people who don't usually vote necessarily. That's why I think her endorsement, in fact, matters far more than a Sean Penn or a George Clooney or a Bruce Willis, because you have 50 percent of the electorate that never vote.
COHEN: Well, and it would seem that what's different about today's culture, too, is that we're much more obsessed with stars than we used to be. I mean, there are reality shows about people who have plastic surgery so they can look like their favorite stars. Do you think now we might just be a little bit more prone to try to do what they do, vote what they vote?
Prof. ROSS: No. No. In fact, it usually backfires. And it backfires - again, I found this from the 1930s on - people see their celebrity figures as fantasies. And the moment a celebrity steps off the fantasy podium and becomes real and tells you who to vote, they've alienated half their potential audience. And that usually means bad stuff. I mean, you had Sid Grauman in the 1920s talking about, don't ever endorse a politician because it's bad for the boxeroo(ph), as he would say.
COHEN: A number of celebrities have donated to multiple candidates. For instance, Ben Stiller, Paul Newman, Michael Douglas has given to several different Democrats. What kind of message does that send if they give money to more than one person?
Prof. ROSS: Ultimately, they want to be remembered so that if a phone call comes through from a Paul Newman, it's picked up by whether it's Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, whoever is handing their lines, that celebrities and particularly celebrities who give money have access. And that's part of it. I mean, some of it is genuine contribution to a political system, but a good part of it is also ego. I want access, and this guarantees me some kind of access.
COHEN: And is there going to be some expectation if anyone of these celebrities' candidates win that somewhere down the road they're going to want something in return? A lot of these celebrities now have their causes, you know, and are they going to be looking to the candidate that they gave money to now to say, hey, I want you to do more about the environment or Sudan or whatever their cause du jour might be.
Prof. ROSS: Well, it also depends on how much money they give. The more money you give, the more access you have. That's just the way life works. I don't think anybody expects a quid pro quo, but it certainly, as my mother would say, it couldn't hurt.
COHEN: You know, Fred Thompson, who is a celebrity in his own right, politician turned actor turned now politician again, he is skipping the Republican debate entirely and he's going to be on the Jay Leno's show. And who knows? we don't know yet whether or not Jay is giving him any money, but what kind of influence does that have? If you see someone on your favorite late-night TV show, are you more likely to vote for them.
Prof. ROSS: Again, I don't think that you're more likely to vote for them. What is true is it gives them exposure. Suddenly, you have a large part of that undecided electorate as well as the electorate that never votes that's watching television, that's watching late-night TV, that's watching various talk shows during the day. Even if 1 or 2 percent of those people decide to vote, in a close election, as we've seen, that can make a huge difference.
COHEN: And what about the celebrities? What influence does it have on them if they put their money or their vote behind any one particular candidate?
Prof. ROSS: Well, there is the potential of a kind of backlash against them. And people in this town still remember McCarthyism. People still remember politicians going after movie stars who took positions. And again, they went after them seemingly because they were communists, but what they called communism was their anti-fascist activities during the '30s and early '40s. There is a lingering memory of what happens to stars who really get in trouble with the sort of patriot right.
COHEN: USC history professor Steve Ross. Thank you so much.
Prof. ROSS: You're welcome. Thank you, Alex.
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