Joe Biden Relying on "Big Hollywood Bundlers" as Pandemic Upends Campaign

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As the Coronavirus outbreak stalls in-person fundraisers, the Democratic presidential frontrunner's campaign has consolidated support in the industry but will need to find creative ways to reap cash.

After sweeping the most recent primaries in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, Joe Biden has all but guaranteed that he will win the Democratic nomination, a fact that leaves Jim Gianopulos — one of the candidate's most loyal supporters in the entertainment industry — with an overwhelming sensation. “Pure joy,” the Paramount chairman tells THR. “I always felt that Joe was the statesman that the country needs right now. And, no — I never wavered.”

But the political world that Biden and supporters like Gianopulos now inherit has changed dramatically. The severity of the COVID-19 out- break began to hit home in the U.S. around the time of South Carolina’s primary, which was the kickoff of Biden’s big comeback. (Other industry names whose Biden support dates to 2019 include Sony’s Tom Rothman and Screen Gems exec Eric Paquette, who’s on the candidate’s national finance committee.)

Now, Biden must dramatically adjust his “Uncle Joe” style of retail politics, which has relied on high-priced fundraisers and human interaction. That won’t necessarily fly in a world in which social distancing is the norm, groups of three are frowned upon and everyone is terrified about the state of the economy.

“When you’re with him one-on-one, he’s incredibly compelling and has an amazing presence. It’s a pity if he’ll have to forgo that personal connection,” says Gianopulos. "But I'm sure he'll find a way to connect whether it's in television appearance or through the normal social channels." On March 23, Biden held a virtual fundraising event from his Delaware home, which has been outfitted with a digital studio. “I know this isn’t how any of us would prefer to connect,” said Biden.

While the event went fine, some other forays into virtual campaigning have had technical problems. Gianopulos said he’s hearing that Michael Bloomberg is expected to take a role in helping to oversee Biden’s online fundraising and outreach.

In the meantime, don’t expect any IRL events in the short term. In the last couple weeks, several high-profile Democratic fundraisers in Los Angeles have been postponed, including one at the home of Disney's Alan Horn and his wife, Cindy, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was supposed to attend, and another at the home of Dayna Bochco in support of Senate candidates. The last major Biden event took place at Sherry Lansing’s Bel Air home March 4, and it quickly sold out after South Carolina. (“There are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon, which is fine; support is support,” says a Hollywood political insider.) And there is some concern that the Democratic convention (scheduled for July 13-16 in Milwaukee) could be jeopardized by efforts to contain the virus.

But there’s plenty of good news for Biden. His sizable margins of victory over Bernie Sanders in key primary states like Michigan should quell legitimacy concerns. Furthermore, current bans on gatherings may not matter all that much for Biden, according to several political advisers. Biden never has benefited from a large grassroots donor pool, instead relying on a small cadre of donors that includes some of Hollywood’s big bundlers.

Biden has seen a huge surge in fundraising since Super Tuesday. During the last debate, he said he had raised $33 million in the first half of March, but he still has a ways to go to catch President Trump, whose reelection campaign has more than $94 million in reserves.

“The effort now is to stop picking up the $2,800 checks,” says one consultant in contact with Biden’s campaign. “They’re trying to finish that and move into much larger figures. Aligning with the DNC, they'll have a fund that'll be capable of accepting much larger contributions — raising hundred thousand-dollar checks. That’s where the big Hollywood bundlers will be helpful.”

That strategy, however, comes with risks. Reaching millennial voters — the ones who typically write those smaller checks — has been a challenge for the 77-year-old Biden, and the optics of further neglecting that class of voters could be perilous.

In the meantime, all eyes are on Sanders. Following the last round of primaries, Sanders said he was "assessing" his campaign, and many are calling for him to end his campaign swiftly. "The writing is on the wall," says entrepreneur Jon Vein, who is married to Gotham Group's Ellen Goldsmith-Vein. "Bernie should try to help shape the platform like he did [in 2016] and do whatever he needs to do. But dragging this out is harmful to everybody other than the guy in the White House."

“Obviously there will be new opportunities to fundraise, and hopefully by late summer or early fall, some of this will have sub- sided,” says Gianopulos. Still, how do you make a fundraising ask in such an environment? “People are feeling good about the campaign and will still actively do things to support Joe, but we also have to be sensitive and prioritize taking care of people and things in our own community,” says James Costos, a former HBO exec and former ambassador to Spain, who with his husband, designer Michael Smith, has hosted fundraisers for Biden. Adds Gianopulos: “Hopefully, once he’s the candidate, even small measures will matter. And a lot of people giving a little money adds up.”

The virus may have impacted every element of life but has not subverted the axiom that money still rules in elections. "The Trump supporters are going to be out there banging the drum and raising money," says Gianopulos. "And we'll have to answer in kind."

A version of this story first appeared in the March 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.