When Bruce Springsteen played a few acoustic sets to open Barack Obama’s appearance in Cleveland on Sunday, it was one of the few times in the fall campaign that the candidate has appeared publicly on the stump with a celebrity.
It reflects a savvy use of entertainment figures on the part of the Obama campaign, particularly high-profile surrogates who are deployed across the country to get out the vote.
Obama’s campaign has been mindful of the pitfalls that come with being so closely associated with Hollywood and yet has been eager to use stars and other industry talent in one form or another.
In the final weekend before the election, for instance, Scarlett Johansson stumped for Obama before young voters in Cleveland, Ryan Phillippe and Olivia Wilde got out the vote for Obama on college campuses in Missouri, and Chris Rock entertained a crowd in Tampa, Fla.
Other creative types canvassed neighborhoods in Nevada, Ohio and Florida or made calls to voters in swing states. Others championed down-ballot candidates and initiatives. Mark Ruffalo spoke in Santa Monica on Saturday morning at a bus tour for No on 8, an effort to defeat a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
On the other side of the partisan divide, Patricia Heaton rallied John McCain volunteers in St. Paul, Minn., and Hank Williams Jr. opened for the candidate in a Friday evening appearance in Columbus, Ohio.
There’s been little doubt throughout the campaign that the Obama campaign would find a way to tap into its strong industry support.
“I think this campaign has used celebrities brilliantly this cycle,” said political consultant Lara Bergthold, who was John Kerry’s liaison to Hollywood in the 2004 presidential race. “The campaign used them mostly around fund-raising and voter visibility in constituencies where they needed it. They haven’t used them everywhere.”
Since early August, when the McCain campaign unleashed its “Celeb” ad that compared Obama’s fame to that of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, there has been much speculation that the Democratic nominee would do his best to distance himself from the entertainment community.
But the reality has been much more nuanced.
The Democratic National Convention was flooded with famous stars, directors and producers, but as Obama turned his attention to reaching Middle American swing voters, the campaign did its best to keep the candidate at arm’s length from celebrities, whether by seating them outside of camera range at the Pepsi Center or giving singers like Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder slots earlier in the evening at Invesco Field, long before the candidate accepted the nomination.
Since then, such high-profile supporters as George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Johansson have been called upon to host fund-raisers for the candidate, and Barbra Streisand even sang at one in which the candidate appeared in Beverly Hills in September.
Those events tended not to draw the same level of publicity as a public campaign rally. Oprah Winfrey, who campaigned with Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina last year, instead hosted a lower-profile fund-raiser in Chicago earlier this month, and the event barely got a mention in the press.
Other Obama supporters, like Leonardo DiCaprio, have instead directed their energies to mobilizing voters separate from the campaign’s efforts. DiCaprio has produced Web videos called “Five Friends,” in which stars like Steven Spielberg, Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts have tried to draw attention to getting to the ballot box. Many of those who appear also are for Obama.
That’s not to say the campaign has abstained from making use of celebrities on the stump. In recent weeks Matt Damon has campaigned for Obama in Miami, Kevin Costner has pitched early voting in Colorado, and Ashley Judd has made appearances in Missouri. On Monday, Mary J. Blige, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Sean “Diddy” Combs will appear at get-out-the-vote rallies for Obama in Columbus, Ohio and Cincinnati.
But the candidate has not appeared at any of the events, and there are good reasons for keeping a distance. In his Florida appearance, Rock made a biting comment to the crowd: “McCain probably had financial problems too, but we can’t all do what he did. We can’t dump our first wife, marry a rich one and have all our bills paid.”
The use of celebrities has involved something of a casting process, with a star matched up with a likeminded constituency or a region with which they have some connection. When Robert Redford appeared in Colorado on Friday on behalf of the campaign and Mark Udall, a longtime friend who is running for Senate, he spoke of his affinity for the state and its longtime support of environmental causes.
Campaign sources say high-profile figures have approached them about going out on the trail with Obama, only to be told that it was not the candidate’s style.
Only in the waning days of the campaign has it happened. Jimmy Smits, who played an Obama-like candidate in the final season of “The West Wing,” introduced the candidate and Bill Clinton at a Florida event on Wednesday. And Springsteen, who stumped with Kerry through several states in 2004, has obvious appeal for working class voters, with Obama telling the Cleveland crowd, “a handful of people who enter into your lives through their music and tell the American people’s story. Bruce Springsteen is one of those people.”
Yet there was no doubt who was the draw. Bergthold noted, “When you can draw crowds of 100,000 people in Missouri, you don’t need a celebrity who can help you get a good turnout.”
In fact, she said that Obama has actually deployed fewer stars than did Kerry, perhaps because “the get-out-the-vote efforts have been so tremendous with all of the volunteers, and the ground game so good, you don’t need celebrities.”
Nevertheless, Republicans haven’t let up on their attacks on Obama’s showbiz contingent. Rudy Giuliani told a crowd in Hanoverton, Ohio, on Friday that they have to work hard to elect McCain and “prove all those people in Hollywood, all those people in the media, wrong.”
But McCain, too, has been savvy about using celebrity. On the same day that Giuliani spoke, the candidate appeared onstage in Columbus with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.