Iowans were preparing to launch the presidential race on Thursday after a long, sometimes bizarre campaign infused with celebrity candidates and their star supporters, and a record Hollywood investment in the results.
The leading Democratric contenders —Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards— were in a race that analysts said was too close to call, with Obama holding onto a slight lead in the polls that nevertheless hinged on his campaign’s ability to turnout first-time caucus-goers.
Republican Mike Huckabee’s underfunded campaign hoped to maintain a lead in some polls with a last minute boost on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Wednesday. His chief rival, Mitt Romney, issued a bitter attack on him in the waning days of the race, targeting not just the candidate’s record but his No. 1 celebrity endorsee, martial arts star Chuck Norris.
Broadcast and cable networks — right down to new players like IFC cable channel— descended on downtown Des Moines to provide unprecedented levels of coverage of the results, driven by the wide open nature of the race and the fact that, for the first time since 1952, no incumbent or vice president is seeking the White House.
Downtown Des Moines was transformed in recent days to what one observer called a “political junkie’s Sundance,” with more than 2,500 credentialed media turning out and news orgs camped out at a downtown convention center. Hollywood donors booked hotel rooms long ago, or flew in on their private jets for the day. And the candidates themselves were followed by entourages of political reporters, many lugging digital cameras and wireless laptops and reflecting a seismic shift toward instantaneous Web coverage of the campaign.
The irony is that the momentum from the Iowa wins and the resulting media attention far outshadow the actual delegate counts: Just 45 are expected to be awarded to Democrats, and 40 to Republicans. Some 250,000 residents were expected to turnout for caucus meetings in town halls, living rooms and school gymnasiums to make their selections.
Despite the complicated process of picking candidates, the caucuses notoriously make or break campaigns, and will more than likely winnow the field of contenders. “Law & Order” star and former Senator Fred Thompson was hoping for a better-than-expected finish after his campaign sputtered almost from the start, with his hopes hinging on landing in the top three.
But even if his own star power didn’t pan out into votes, campaigns thrived on the notoriety of the entertainment business to draw attention and potential supporters.
In the final days of the campaigns in the Hawkeye state, a flood of Hollywood figures descended on Des Moines to campaign for their chosen candidates. James Denton manned phone banks for Edwards, and John Mellencamp performed for the candidate at a closing rally on Wednesday night. Richard Schiff of “The West Wing” stumped for Joseph Biden, and Kal Penn all but moved to the state to help organize for Obama.
But perhaps no two celebrities drew greater attention that Oprah Winfrey and Norris for Obama and Huckabee, respectively. Tens of thousands showed up in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to listen to Winfrey give her first time pitch to a presidential contender. And Norris was all but the spokesman for the Huckabee campaign, appearing in a kitsch-y campaign ad with the candidate that coincided with Huckabee’s unlikely rise in the polls. Stumping for Huckabee throughout Iowa in recent days, Norris even took on the role of campaign attack dog, delivering barbed cricisims of his chief rival Romney.
Whether any of the celebrities on the stump actually translate into votes is in doubt, but it did at least help the respective campaigns in publicity and organization. The Obama campaign, for instance, collected thousands of voter information cards at the Winfrey events to help them turn out the vote on caucus night.
But Hollywood’s greatest influence perhaps came in the form of badly needed cash — and donors turned out in record numbers.
By the end of September, the industry had contributed more than $6.5 million across all campaigns, led by Obama with more than $2.2 million and followed closely behind by Clinton with $2.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. John Edwards raised almost $459,000 in that frame, followed by John McCain with $386,325 and Rudy Giuliani with $376,826.
Perhaps most surprising, however, was that Thompson, despite his Hollywood connections, never took off among industry donors. When he raised money last month at the Century Plaza Hotel, many Hollywood Republicans were gathered at a party that same evening at the home of Kelsey Grammer, a key supporter of Giuliani.