Endorsements often come with limitations

Oprah Winfrey is sure to help Barack Obama bring in more donors, but it remains to be seen whether she can bring in actual votes.

As high-profile as her seal of approval is, in practice celebrity endorsements come with limitations.

“As far as actual votes, my experience is these endorsements don’t mean much,” says political and fund-raising consultant Noah Mamet. “People don’t like being told who to vote for, by anyone.

Last month, Steven Spielberg endorsed Hillary Clinton, surely giving her Hollywood campaign some momentum. But it’s doubtful his nod will inspire middle America to vote for her, and the same may even go for Hollywood. After all, his DreamWorks partners, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, are still for Obama.

Spielberg’s nod has yet to lead to a steady stream of industry figures pledging to support Clinton — and only Clinton.

Many donors are still on the fence, giving to multiple candidates.

“Where endorsements do have an impact is that they are part of the ‘first primary,’ in a sense,” says John Emerson, one of Clinton’s key California backers and chairman of the L.A. Music Center. “It creates a sense of ‘Wow, she’s got momentum. She’s doing well. Maybe I should get on this bandwagon as well.’ “

When Spielberg agreed in January to co-host a fund-raiser for Obama along with Katzenberg and Geffen, he apparently had no idea of the waves it would generate.

There were reports Spielberg caught flak from the Clintons for doing the event. But Spielberg’s reps say that there were no high-pressure phone calls and the director was very clear back then that he was taking his time to endorse anyone. But Spielberg’s reps deny this and note that the director was very clear back then that he was taking his time to endorse anyone. With his longtime ties to the Clinton, his co-sponsorship of the Obama fund-raiser was likely a favor to Geffen.

Obama backers now argue that it was all but a given that Spielberg would endorse Clinton; it was just a matter of time.

“Steven Spielberg has been a longtime friend of the Clintons,” says Lara Bergthold, a political consultant for Norman Lear (Bergthold and Lear are as yet uncommitted). “It would have been earth-shattering for him not to endorse her.”

Still, there is a certain cachet that comes when celebs and candidates go hand in hand.

Already this year, John Edwards was on the trail with Danny Glover. Rudy Giuliani‘s opening act at fund-raisers has been comedian Dennis Miller. Chris Dodd reaped a windfall of attention when singer Paul Simon campaigned with him through Iowa, with the singer dutifully signing autographs and the candidate quipping, “My name is Art Garfunkel.”

Winfrey’s nodis on an entirely different level, though, given her status in American popular culture. But that doesn’t mean her magic touch for books will do the same for political aspirants.

“Just saying that she supports Obama and raising some money for him may be of some value, but if she were willing to really campaign for him, it might make a big difference, especially getting out black voters,” says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard U.

“I can’t imagine many endorsements that would have more potential value, but then I don’t put too much stock in endorsements — including those in newspapers. My guess is that their power is usually to reinforce a choice already made, but that they don’t change minds.”

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