LOS ANGELES — This year’s Republican presidential race may be about “New York values,” but Democrats have long counted on Hollywood cash. The only question is which Democrat gets it.
Bernie Sanders' strong performance at Monday’s Iowa caucuses — where he battled erstwhile front-runner Hillary Clinton to a virtual tie — established him as a viable alternative to the once-presumptive Democratic nominee. And like the rest of America, the Los Angeles community of Hollywood increasingly seems to be feeling the Bern, with more actors and musicians jumping on the Vermont socialist’s bandwagon.
Clinton backers can understandably fear that they’ve seen this movie before: Eight years ago, an inexperienced Illinois senator stole her thunder in Iowa. But while the Obama campaign used its momentum to win the hearts and minds — and wallets — of the Hollywood donor class en route to the White House, political insiders say it’s hard to imagine Sanders doing the same this time around.
Howie Mandel, gynecologist to the stars, prominent Democratic fundraiser and board member of the Draft Biden committee, said there’s an enthusiasm gap even among the donor class. He said that many big donors — or bundlers, because they gather and deliver contributions from a larger group of individual donors — aren’t as drawn to the Sanders campaign as they were to Clinton’s opponent eight years ago.
“Most people I know love Sen. Sanders but are not socialists,” Mandel, who donated to both Biden and Obama in 2008, told International Business Times. “Several actors, directors and writer-producers are writing double-max checks, but I don’t think that they’re bundling. I do know many [bundlers] nationwide that are just sitting this season out and a few that are not bundling but are donating to [John] Kasich.”
But Mandel doesn’t see Sanders as a real threat to Clinton’s Hollywood cash fire hose. (In a uniquely LA coincidence, Mandel is friendly with Howie Mandel the comic, who got his big break playing a doctor on "St. Elsewhere.")
“I don’t think the bundlers will jump ship unless HRC gets indicted,” he said.
Entertainment industry cash is so valuable to political candidates because it tends to come with fewer strings attached than most donations. That’s why California, which is completely irrelevant in the presidential race with the way the electoral college works, gets so many visits from presidential candidates.
Some LA Democratic insiders say Hollywood is really the one industry that does not donate based on its immediate financial interest. Even the tech industry, which tends to be very supportive of Democrats, wants certain policies in return. But billionaire producers will throw a fundraiser for a candidate just because they like that candidate.
Max Kanin, a political attorney who’s worked on several Democratic campaigns, including Clinton’s in 2008, said it’s not entirely altruistic, but political donors in LA aren’t as overly strategic as they are elsewhere.
“People here donate because they want to make a connection to the candidate or support a candidate who they feel promotes their interests,” he said. “It’s not quid pro quo so much as they want to support the politicians who they believe will be supportive of things that they like.”
Pete Kelly, a founding partner at consulting firm Vectis Strategies and former chairman of the California Democratic Party, said about one-third of the state’s Democratic electorate consistently gravitates toward the most liberal candidate once he or she passes a certain credibility threshold, which Sanders has. The entertainment industry is even more progressive, and it especially hates being told what to do by the establishment.
“The entertainment community is going to do what it wants to do,” he said. “And the liberal phenomenon is bigger in Hollywood.”
Clinton insiders say their candidate, who’s been in the public eye consistently for 25 years, is the furthest thing from the type of underdog, coming-out-of-nowhere story that tends to appeal to Hollywood donors (who, after all, produce compelling storylines for a living). And there’s also a long-standing trust issue with the Clintons, which her recent email controversy has only amplified. Some said the Clinton campaign did not handle the email scandal well at all, and acknowledged that its extra layers of complication made it look unnecessarily sinister.
Both Sanders and Clinton visited LA last summer on fundraising swings. Bernie got a very positive reception from Hollywood’s more progressive wing. Hillary collected cash from seemingly every A-lister.
Since then, as Sanders has climbed from a single-digit long shot in polls to a virtual tie with Clinton in Iowa, the highest-profile entertainment surrogate he’s picked up might be rapper Killer Mike. Actors Susan Sarandon and Mark Ruffalo are also notable Sanders supporters, but he hasn’t attracted the same star power to his campaign as Obama had at this time in the 2008 election cycle, when he already had mega-moguls Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen and superstars such as George Clooney and Barbra Streisand in his corner — not to mention the most powerful celebrity endorser, Oprah.
Meanwhile, Clinton continues to reel in cash from the likes of Power Rangers creator Haim Saban and box office king Steven Spielberg. Mandel said he knows of more than 100 major Biden supporters who have chosen to sit this one out.
Clinton insiders say they haven't seen any big surge of Hollywood enthusiasm toward Sanders that would give them cause for concern. Clinton still has the market cornered on the industry's biggest donors.
While he’s compiled an impressive list of celebrity endorsements, Sanders hasn’t caused any major fundraisers to defect. His entertainment industry supporters will appear at rallies and concerts — like one hosted by the Red Hot Chili Peppers this week — and help him continue to rack up individual donations. But Kelly said he can’t see any way the Spielbergs and Sabans of the world start raising cash for Sanders unless he gets the nomination. And he expects downballot Democrats nationwide to fight that tooth and nail.
“I don’t think there’s any way the national Democratic Party in a convention is going to nominate Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton,” Kelly said. “Every member of Congress would be on a warpath because they’re scared for their seat.”
While Clinton clearly has work to do — she lost the youth vote by 70 percent in Iowa — insiders say her team can’t panic like it did in 2008, when tightening polls led to chaos and a bunch of unforced errors. When Obama proved himself a viable national candidate with his win in overwhelmingly white Iowa, the Democratic establishment got on board, the Hollywood tap was cranked up and the Obama train rolled to the nomination.
But this time, it’s hard to imagine Hollywood’s big donors repeating their exodus from the Clinton camp, even if a handful of actors and musicians are feeling the Bern. Hillary may never be as sexy a choice as Obama, but for most of Hollywood, President Ted Cruz would be the type of train wreck Michael Bay might have trouble choreographing.
“I think people here have kind of gotten to the point where they don’t trust her, but they kind of like her anyway and they’re OK with her,” said one 2008 Clinton staffer who requested anonymity because he's still involved in local campaigns. “Hollywood wants to beat the Republican. America’s elected plenty of racist a--holes, egomaniacs and warmongers, but we’ve never elected a socialist.”