Donors reluctant to pick one candidate

There’s a favorite Bill Clinton quote that gets passed around in Hollywood political circles: “Do you know what’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans? Democrats always want to fall in love; Republicans always want to fall in line. We need to fall in line.”

So far this year, Hollywood donors of both parties are trying to fall in love, but they certainly aren’t falling in line.

They’re spreading their wealth, hedging their bets, paying favors — whatever you want to call it, the givers who comprise the entertainment ATM have yet to make up their minds and are donating to multiple candidates.

The 2008 election is already an emotional issue for many in showbiz (as for others in the rest of the country), as the Iraq war and abortion bring people’s feelings to the boiling point.

Two-thirds of the country will go to the primaries on Feb. 5, including California, which means the state is poised to wield new influence not just in money but in votes.

But at this point, Hollywood wants to weigh its options. As expected, Hillary Clinton led other candidates in showbiz giving with $806,558, but the idea that she would walk away with all the Hollywood money (in an industry where she has long-standing connections) has been dashed by the surprisingly strong showing by Barack Obama.

As much as Hollywood loves the drama between the establishment candidate and the unexpected upstart, there’s also a sense that the Democratic field shouldn’t be narrowed down to two candidates at this point.

Many of Clinton’s prominent donors come from showbiz corporate types (corporate moguls, studio chiefs). Obama, meanwhile, has a notable number of creative types (writers, directors and producers). It’s a generalization, but it makes sense when you consider that Haim Saban was among the hosts of Clinton’s big event Hollywood event in March, and the DreamWorks trio (Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen) presided over Obama’s in February.

But just about every major studio chief or notable media mogul has given to two or more candidates in the first quarter of this year. The same goes for many producers, writers, directors and stars. Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Rosie O’Donnell, Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand gave to three or more candidates.

But it’s not just the writing of checks. Under campaign-finance reform, an individual can give only $2,300 to one candidate, and $42,700 in all. And, of course, spouses can make their own contributions.

The truth is that it’s one thing to give money to a campaign; it’s quite another to actually help raise it. That is where the field narrows to a select few.

“It is very easy to write a check to a variety of different candidates,” says political consultant Chad Griffin, who has been raising money for Clinton. “What really matters is what their commitments are to raise money for a particular candidate.”

In an era of campaign finance reform, contenders depend on so-called “bundlers,” those who can draw on friends, relatives, business associates — any type of connections — to contribute. Clinton has Ron Burkle, Cheryl and Haim Saban, Steve Bing, Noah Mamet and Marc Nathanson. Obama has Geffen, Katzenberg, Nicole Avant, Hill Harper and Charles Rivkin, among others.

To these bundlers, the industry’s “spread the wealth” mentality is no surprise. When a Chris Dodd or a Bill Richardson comes to meet with you personally, who can say no? Or better yet, it becomes about repaying favors: I’ll give to your candidate if you give to mine.

It recalls the days when kingmaker Lew Wasserman kept elaborate records of who gave what to whom, even how lawmakers who received donations voted on various industry-related issues.

The practice lives on in the databases of industry political consultants, although chances are issues like the environment or national security are on donors’ minds more often than something that could directly affect the entertainment business.

And there is another factor: Back-scratching. Notes John Emerson, chairman of the Los Angeles Music Center and one of Clinton’s key fund-raisers and donors in Los Angeles, “People give to a candidate, and also give to the person who is asking.”

So the list of contributors so far is not necessarily an indication that a candidate will have someone’s endorsement.

“For some people, to decide who to vote for is more difficult than who to give to because you’re allowed to give to multiple candidates,” says Mamet, a political and foundation consultant who is raising money for Clinton.

Via e-mail, Saban says, “I think that people all over the country, not just in the entertainment industry, are giving to multiple candidates. I don’t think this is something unique to the entertainment industry. It is an individual decision. I chose personally to exclusively support Hillary Clinton. Others have not made up their mind yet.”

That isn’t to say that each campaign doesn’t have those in the industry who’ve fallen for their respective contenders. Backers of Clinton at her March gala at the home of Burkle serenaded her with a Merle Haggard song specially written for her campaign.

Fervent supporters at Obama’s big fund-raiser in February compared him to no less than Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. A news helicopter flew overhead to capture John Edwards speaking to a crowd at a March fund-raiser at the home of Skip Brittenham and Heather Thomas.

So why aren’t these admirers rallying around Clinton, the presumptive front runner?

Even some of her Hollywood supporters admit that the campaign thought that the industry would fall in line behind her. Late last year, the likes of Obama and Dodd were making the rounds in Hollywood, holding not-so-secret meet and greets with groups of prospective donors. As for Clinton, the presumption was that people in entertainment already knew her — she had just won reelection — so she didn’t have to do the same level of pre-campaign courtship.

Some in Hollywood have repeated a story that other candidates immediately called John and Elizabeth Edwards after the couple announced Elizabeth’s cancer had returned, but Clinton did not. The Edwards camp later refuted this story, but the fact that it still circulates feeds into the drawback that has dogged Clinton: That she is calculating, and even a little cold, even if those who meet her one-on-one come away with the opposite impression.

Similarly, some have doubts about Obama due to his inexperience. In Hollywood, people are particularly sensitive to the notion that an overnight superstar won’t be able to handle his fame or notoriety. Obama’s appearance at the Beverly Hilton event drew mixed reviews — some thought he was tired, and a bit nervous — and many prospective donors are waiting for him to get into the down and often dicey details of the issues.

And those issues, other campaigns say, is what can get lost in all the money and star-gazing.

New Mexico Gov. Richardson, who is raising money in Hollywood at a series of events this week, tells Variety, “I spoke with several people who attended Geffen’s Obama thing, and they all said they’re interested in a spirited primary and want to help out all the viable candidates including myself.

“They want to see a contest. They want to see a candidate’s heart and soul and convictions. They don’t want to see whoever has the greatest rock-star status prevail. They’re just spreading their money out. They’re not hedging their bets, either. Hey, they don’t really need anything from the government; they are independently well off and simply care about the future of the country.”

The $2.4 million that Hollywood has so far shelled out to 2008 presidential candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is dominated by money flowing to the Democrats and certainly outpaces the sum raised at this point in 2003. The anti-Bush sentiment, coupled with Democratic congressional wins last year, has energized people. Even some one-time Bush backers are certainly not tied to backing the GOP candidate. Terry Semel, who threw a fund-raiser for George Bush in 1999, showed up at Hillary Clinton’s gala this year.

“I think that we have had so many years of what I would describe as Republican misrule that people, as far as contributing to Democratic candidates, don’t care,” says Max Palevsky, the producer and venture capitalist who is backing Obama. “They just don’t want another Republican president. They want to bet on everybody.

“I think the present occupant of the office has split the country so decisively that people don’t have strong opinions about it. It isn’t an easy decision for most people.”

By the same token, minds are far from made up on the other side, either. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain still have a hearty but smaller base of donors in Hollywood, and again, there is some multiple giving going on. McCain collected $239,350 in contributions to Giuliani’s $105,350, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It doesn’t approach other Democrats, but it’s sizeable.

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain has long had a number of entertainment industry connections, but his campaign has had its share of troubles. Fundraising overall fell below expectations. His war stance has overshadowed his past image as a maverick. In fact, some of his enthusiastic backers in the industry say that they get hassled for their continued loyalty to McCain, as he has staked so much of his campaign on his support of continued involvement in Iraq.

The war in Iraq looms over Clinton as well, particularly to progressives. Jodie Evans, who with Palevsky was one of the co-hosts of Obama’s event along with the DreamWorks trio, has been leading her anti-war group CodePink to Clinton events, challenging the senator to explain her position.

Asked if he would support Clinton if she became the Demo nominee, Palevsky says, “No, I don’t think so. I think the war is such a big issue that many people would not back a candidate who is not 100% solidly against the war now.”

But many other Democrats say they are bolstered by a strong field of contenders, apparent uncertainty on the Republican side and the strong Demo showing in fund-raising.

Many GOPers are waiting and even hoping that a Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich joins the race. Rupert Murdoch, for one, has said he would love to see Gingrich get in.

By contrast, Saban says Clinton is drawing broad support, given her financial position and poll numbers.

“When Hillary becomes the nominee, which I believe in my heart of hearts she will be, I believe that supporters of all other candidates will rally behind her,” he says.

At this point in 2003, Howard Dean was beginning his ascendancy, Edwards had just raised the most money in the first quarter and many in Hollywood were dreaming that Wesley Clark or, better yet, even Hillary Clinton would get in the race. John Kerry was being written off.

Even more so than now, Hollywood Democrats were still trying to fall in love. Eventually, when Kerry became the nominee, they fell in line. The message: Hollywood money only goes so far; at a certain point, it actually does become about winning votes.

– John Clarke Jr. in New York contributed to this story.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more