Invisible Obama: The Backlash for Mitt Romney and Clint Eastwood
This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For years, Democrats have been criticized for relying too heavily on celebrities such as George Clooney and Barbra Streisand to communicate their message to voters. But in the aftermath of Clint Eastwood's bizarre speech Aug. 30 at the Republican National Convention, political insiders are assessing the potential damage to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. At the same time, Hollywood's anxious Democratic fund-raisers are seizing on the perceived gaffe as the campaign hits its crucial homestretch.
Eastwood, 82, surprised many with a rambling 12-minute diatribe that included a conversation with an imaginary President Obama in an empty chair. The speech, which was not approved by Romney advisers in advance, drew decidedly mixed pundit reactions and widespread scorn online and is widely regarded to have upstaged Romney's acceptance of the nomination on the final night of the RNC.
"The post-convention coverage was all about Clint," notes Bill Carrick, a veteran Los Angeles-based Democratic political consultant. "Radio, cable TV, everyone was talking about it. I think he contributed to Romney's failure to get any bounce."
Indeed, a Gallup poll released days after the convention put Obama at 47 percent and Romney at 46 percent -- about where they were before the Tampa, Fla., event. "So far, we don't see an impact," wrote Gallup editor Frank Newport.
By contrast, the Republicans' 2008 convention, which featured the official John McCain-Sarah Palin unveiling, gave McCain a brief bounce and a five-point lead.
Perhaps more important than a temporary poll impact, the Eastwood stunt came as Obama's leading fund-raisers and bundlers are renewing their push for campaign donations. For the past few months, insiders have grumbled that their sense of urgency isn't sufficiently shared by the Democrats' base of deep-pocketed donors. Some Hollywood backers are particularly concerned that the entertainment industry, traditionally one of the Democrats' reliable money reservoirs, isn't taking Romney's candidacy seriously enough. For instance, David Geffen, who gave generously in 2008, has contributed to the official Obama campaign but has yet to donate to an Obama-supporting super PAC.
"There's a complacency within the Democratic base about Romney," says Andy Spahn, Obama's top Hollywood fund-raiser. "There's a sense that Romney is weak and out of touch with the average American. He picked a fringe congressman as a running mate. But the fact is, this country is evenly split. This is going to be a very close race, and the time to step up is now."
Spahn declines to say whether Eastwood's attack on Obama has become a focus of fund-raising efforts, instead characterizing the stunt as further evidence of Republicans living in their own bubble. "The more the American people see and hear from Romney-Ryan, the better for our fund-raising efforts," says Spahn.
Those sentiments are echoed by Harvey Weinstein, who has been among the president's most active East Coast fund-raisers. "As far as I am concerned," he tells THR, "everyone I know is supporting President Obama in a big way, and I think even bigger support is about to come as the election gets closer.' "
In fact, Weinstein and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of this election cycle's biggest Democratic bundlers, both have several big-money fund-raisers in the works for the fall, including a concert series with the potential to be very lucrative.
Obama backers also hope for a fund-raising boost from the Democratic National Convention, which kicked off Sept. 4. Hollywood will play a smaller role at the DNC than in 2008 -- because of factors including the Charlotte, N.C., location and the conflicting MTV Video Music Awards -- but Dems are following through on plans to feature celebrity backers Eva Longoria, Kal Penn and Jessica Alba despite the Eastwood backlash.
Still, when it comes to essential parts of the fund-raising base, Democratic activists have had to struggle against super PACs. Much of their spending goes directly into negative advertising, which many entertainment industry givers find distasteful. The result is that Romney consistently has outraised the president's re-election campaign and Republican-oriented super PACs have left their major Democratic counterparts, like Priorities USA, far behind. Some leading Democratic fund-raisers worry that even if they can communicate urgency to their base, the contributions might come too late to buy key commercial airtime. But Spahn remains confident. "We will have what we need," he says.
The impact of Eastwood's speech on his next film, the baseball drama Trouble With the Curve, remains equally unclear. Warner Bros. declined comment on whether marketing plans might be tweaked in advance of the Sept. 21 release of the film, which Eastwood stars in but did not direct.
Rival execs say the likely impact, if any, will be minimal. "The people who are going to see this movie are going to see it regardless of Clint's speech," says a president at a rival studio. "It's like George Clooney. I don't think he's lost any Republican ticket buyers. Most people don't connect the two." If fact, despite polls suggesting that moviegoers are impacted by political leanings, the source doesn't see any potential upswing, even in so-called red states.
"Outspoken celebrities are good for raising money for a party at fund-raisers, but no [moviegoer] says, 'Let's go help the Republican cause by seeing Clint Eastwood's next film or the Democrat cause by seeing a Barbra Streisand movie.' "
Pamela McClintock and Tatiana Siegel contributed to this report.