The politician wasn’t the only reason more than 5,000 enthusiastic people crammed into an arena in Greenville a few days before South Carolina’s primary. They went to see legendary actor-turned-activist Danny Glover.
“It is amazing to know that you are building not only a movement, but you are building that movement on the stage of a presidential election,” an exuberant Glover shouted as he stood side-by-side with Bernie Sanders at what turned into Sanders’ largest South Carolina rally. “We have never had that opportunity before. We are going to change this country.”
Hardly alone, Glover is part of an eclectic group of celebrities, including musicians, directors and artists backing Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
There’s rock band Vampire Weekend. Actor John C. Reilly. Artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic Barack Obama Hope poster. Even Ben Cohen of the famous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream duo who introduced a new flavor, Bernie’s Yearning, named for Sanders. This week, director Spike Lee cut a radio ad for him in South Carolina. On Friday, rapper Killer Miller will join Sanders at Claflin University in Orangeburg.
I want a candidate who has the courage to stand and do the right thing when it is not popular.
Actress Susan Sarandon
Clinton has always had plenty of star power – actress Lena Dunham and singer Demi Lovato have appeared on the campaign trail for her – some of it forged during her husband’s presidency. This year, however, a rumpled 74-year-old senator from Vermont is a surprisingly strong competitor for celebrity endorsements as the two search for donations, publicity and votes.
“It grabs people's attention. They’re like, ‘He’s not just some goofy 70-year-old dude,’ ” said Dylan Larabee, 25, a bartender in Keene, New Hampshire, who supports Sanders. “It opens people’s eyes to him, and once people are exposed, they take a liking.”
Most Democrats in the early primary states say they would not switch their votes based on an endorsement from a celebrity – even if it were singer Katy Perry, who favors Clinton, or rapper Lil B, who backs Sanders.
At least they won’t admit it.
[Get the political buzz of the day, every day from McClatchy]
“We’re from Iowa. It’s not who we are,” said Kate Rice, 40, a teacher at Des Moines Area Community College. “It’s not going to draw me to one or another. I like to think that I am trying to get a better idea in terms of the issues.”
Maggie Salvas, a retired school employee from Amherst, New Hampshire, who backs Clinton, insisted she’s never been “taken” by big name or celebrity endorsements. “I don’t do autographs,” she said at a Clinton event in Nashua. “It might be a kick for some people to see, but I'm here for her.”
Researchers are split on whether celebrity endorsements can change votes.
Oprah’s endorsement of Obama in 2008 increased the chances that her magazine subscribers would cast a ballot for him, one study showed. But another study found that college students were not influenced by celebrities at all, and even thought less of some of them after learning their political views.
It doesn't matter to me; I care more about my peers and what they say. I might listen to someone, but at the end of the day, it won't change my mind.
Laura Catanzano, 31, child care facility director in Merrimack, New Hampshire
One thing is clear: Clinton’s A-list endorsements haven’t helped her win younger voters. In 2008, they favored Obama. This year, they favor Sanders by staggering margins.
“Nobody is going to vote for Bernie because Susan Sarandon says he’s a great guy,” said Wayne Lesperance, director of the New England College Polling Institute, who recently accompanied his wife to a packed event for Clinton with feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
But here’s what celebrities can do: Boost attendance and draw positive publicity to events.
About 4,000 people showed up to hear Vampire Weekend at Sanders’ largest rally just before the Iowa caucuses. Hundreds braved a snowstorm to hear indie folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros belt out a song written about Sanders, a.k.a. the Bern, at his final campaign event before the New Hampshire primary. He expects another large showing at a concert in Columbia Friday, the last event before Saturday’s primary.
“Celebrities don’t have the power to get you to vote for a candidate, but they can get you to pay attention,” said Arthur Lupia, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.
Some celebrities show their support through social media. Others take it a step further and introduce candidates or perform for supporters, sometimes appearing without the candidates. They pose for photos, sign books and shake hands.
Sarandon and actor Justin Long appeared at Sanders’ rallies while Killer Mike and musicians from the bands Foster the People and Vampire Weekend worked on media.
“I'm a huge Vampire Weekend fan and to see a band I really enjoy go out and support someone I like really did make a difference,” said Zebulon Hildreth, 18, of Hinsdale, New Hampshire. “For them to say, ‘I feel the Bern, I was impressed.’ ”
Perry, wearing an American flag cape and a Clinton campaign pin, performed at a Clinton rally in Des Moines. Dunham, clad in specially made clothes designed with Clinton’s name, toured early states and held events in Boston and Chicago. Lovato sang in front of 1,700 students at the University of Iowa.
I believe that nothing will send a stronger message to America and the world at large than electing a competent, experienced, and brilliant woman to the highest office in the land.
Actress Lena Dunham
Kacey Carpenter, 53, a Mountain View, California, resident who works as a global marketing executive at Cisco, flew to Iowa to volunteer for Sanders and attended the massive rally at the University of Iowa. He said celebrity endorsements work for a simple reason.
“It’s fun. It kind of feels like this festival environment,” he said. “People just have a certain relationship with celebrities.”
Lesley Clark contributed.
Celebrity endorsements in Democratic campaign
For Hillary Clinton
Jamie Lee Curtis
Vivica A. Fox
Jason Winston George
Sean Patrick Thomas
Courtney B. Vance
For Bernie Sanders
Flea (Michael Peter Balzary)
Brandon Christopher “Lil B" McCartney
John C. Reilly
Michael “Killer Mike” Render
Sources: Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Bernie Sanders’ campaign