Obama's Hollywood Organizers Reveal Winning Strategy That Helped Tip Election

Jay-Z Barack Obama Bruce Springsteen - H 2012
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Jay-Z Barack Obama Bruce Springsteen - H 2012

Stars, it turns out, don't turn off voters as the campaign reveals its fine-tuned celebrity strategy.

In the weeks and days leading up to the Nov. 6 election, a group of Hollywood executives and celebrities played a surprisingly key role in mobilizing voters for President Barack Obama.

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And who mobilized those industry activists? Obama can thank singer-songwriter-producer Bruce Roberts and producer Eric Ortner, co-chairs of the re-election campaign's Entertainment Advisory Council. They directed the campaign's so-called "special ingredient," adding an effective dash of showbiz to a ground game that has been praised for its sophisticated use of social media and data mining to get out the vote -- especially among under-30 voters who turned out in greater numbers than in 2008 and favored Obama by 24 percent (60 percent compared with 36 percent for Mitt Romney).

"Celebrity involvement allowed for an increased awareness around early vote and vote-by-mail initiatives," says Jennifer Rosenbaum, who served as the campaign's deputy director of surrogates.

Roberts and Ortner, both Democratic Party veterans, coordinated a plan that sent actors and musicians -- among them Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, John Legend, John Mellencamp and Ricky Martin -- to headline events in swing states. Perry was dispatched to North Las Vegas and Milwaukee; Springsteen played Parma, Ohio, Charlottesville, Va. and Ames, Iowa; Martin hit Miami -- all key battlegrounds that tipped to Obama.

As thousands of people lined up for events, campaign workers collected cell phone numbers and e-mail and home addresses so the attendees could be contacted and urged to vote for Obama. Those who needed rides to the polls on Election Day were offered a free shuttle service. "For every voter contact we had, we would exponentially build other contacts, and the marketing became horizontal because of it," says Ortner.

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The Des Moines Register noted the tactic, writing, "There's no such thing as a free Bruce Springsteen concert."

But the strategy worked. In the Vegas neighborhood where Perry performed for more than 13,000 people, area residents "rushed" their polling places on Election Day, according to local media accounts.

Shows and rallies were the visible part of the effort, but behind the scenes, Hollywood agents and producers -- including Jimmy Kimmel Live! producer Daniel Kellison and CAA agent Rob Light  -- enlisted celebrities from actors to chefs to use their own social networks to urge their fans to vote.  They were provided with the Obama campaign's daily messages but were left to disseminate them in their own fashion.

The campaign's director of surrogates Joe Reinstein and deputy Rosenbaum were key in putting the council together. Also involved were Ambassadors Matthew Barzun and Nicole Avant, live events producer Ken Ehrlich, studio chief Harvey Weinstein, actor Kal Penn, Untitled Entertainment's Jason Weinberg, ICM's Chris Silbermann, music vet Kevin Liles, Collective president Michael Green, Paradigm's Marty Diamond, Warner Music Group's Craig Kallman and Livia Tortella, Universal Music Group's Jeff Harlston, manager Bill Silva, Direct Management's Steve Jensen and Martin Kirkup, WME's Charles King and publicists Lewis Kay and Sean Sachs.

It wasn't long before celebrities supporting Obama were reaching 90 million of their social media followers every day. The results were, in Roberts' words, one of the secret sauces in the successful campaign, an effort that began last October with a private meeting in Beverly Hills between Obama and top-level agents and producers. The plan that emerged from that meeting, Ortner says, was very scientific: "The idea was to mobilize constituency groups to build a ground game. It was very strategic."

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Ortner -- whose father is entertainment attorney Chuck Ortner (Lady Gaga, Madonna) -- agreed to team with family friend Roberts (he's written songs for Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer) to lead the charge. Between them, they knew everyone in town and began making asks.

"What we did was we opened up our Rolodexes for the president," says Roberts. "With all the years of experience we both have and all the contacts we have, we knew who to call and how to do it."