There’s a common refrain that unites both showbiz Republicans and Democrats planning to tune in to Thursday’s first debate of 2016 presidential campaign: They will watching for the theater of it all.
The curiosity factor, driven by the insurgent candidacy of Donald Trump, also reflects the fact that industry conservatives are still weighing their options of a mammoth field of candidates. Some have given to campaigns, but, as one prominent industry conservative puts it, many aren’t married to their choices.
Trump’s candidacy has added an extra element of unpredictability to the race — and that’s probably an understatement. He was met with wild applause and response when he spoke to the conservative Hollywood group Friends of Abe in June, a crowd that included about 300 people. But that energy is still a far cry from actually committing to his candidacy. Some like how he is shaking up the race, but also worry about what would happen were he to actually win the nomination.
Trump will be front and center among the 10 candidates that Fox News invited to the debate, which will start at about 6 p.m. PT on Thursday.
“It is so early, especially for Republicans,” said writer-producer Rob Long. “I have a feeling, in terms of how entertainment industry Republicans will go, that will be determined in January or February or even March.”
From a fundraising standpoint, the base of showbiz conservatives is much smaller than those on the left, but it’s not insignificant. The split of showbiz giving to Democratic to Republican candidates (for all federal offices) was 77%-22% in 2012, or $34.6 million to $10.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Many donors have yet to enter the fray. Those who have given so far this cycle include Legendary Entertainment’s Bruce Rosenblum, who gave to Jeb Bush’s campaign, joining such figures as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Jenny Craig and USC’s Pat Haden. Right to Rise, Bush’s SuperPAC, drew donors like media mogul Jerry Perenchio, who gave $100,000, and Daniel Loeb, the private equity manager (and investor in PMC, parent company of Variety), who gave $500,000. Perenchio also gave to Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign.
Harry Sloan, chairman and CEO of Global Eagle Acquisition Corp., gave to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s presidential bid, while a SuperPAC backing Chris Christie drew a $50,000 contribution from Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard.
Next week, Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) will each be in Los Angeles for fundraisers, but there are few industry names on the host committees. ON Tuesday, Bush is scheduled to attend a $2,700-per-person luncheon reception at the home of Angelo Mazzone, with those who raise $27,000 also getting two tickets to a dinner speech by the candidate that evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Among those on the host committee for the event are former Rep. David Dreier; Beny Alagem, owner of the Beverly Hilton Hotel; and technology executive Bill Mundell.
Rubio is scheduled at a trio of events, including a $1,000-per-person reception on Tuesday at the Los Feliz home of Nadine and Alex Chaves, and a $2,700-per-person reception on Wednesday at the home of Tony Pritzker.
Long believes that the field of top choices will narrow to Bush, Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and perhaps New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“If you are a Republican trying to make a choice about who is going to appeal to the rest of the country, the question to ask is who has run a successful statewide campaign in important states that lean blue,” he said.
Writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd said that, even if there is a dearth of industry names giving, “people are feeling cheerful and optimistic for the first time in a while,” seeing a real shot at winning the White House in 2016. He said that even though conservatives have been “increasingly gloomy” over the direction of the country over the past few years, “there is a sense that the end is in sight.”
Democrats are relishing Trump’s spot atop the polls, even actual voting is still six months away.
If Trump’s rise does not last, Chetwynd and Long suggest that his appeal can’t be dismissed by the party establishment and elite — of both parties.
“Many Americans feel controlled,” Chetwynd said. “Political Correctness has reduced their politics to Kabuki, telling them what may be discussed, what is allowed to be said, and the only acceptable way to say it.
“Trump barges in with the manners of a New York schoolyard and with all the rough edges one associates with that — a tough kid who stands up for himself, and says what he thinks,” he adds. “It’s a relief. He represents the common-sense plain speaking American. You know what he’s talking about. And he doesn’t back down for the PC police. Until he does, he’s likely to be the front-runner.”
Long thinks that there’s a way for Trump to surprise at the Thursday debate. “Give the most down-the-middle performance ever,” he said. “Just freak everyone out by being a regular candidate.”