Comedian Sarah Silverman, director Michael Moore, actors Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo, and rappers Cardi B and Killer Mike have stumped for Sanders and cut campaign videos. The Strokes played in New Hampshire at a Sanders rally where they also happened to debut two new songs.
When we talk about celebrities endorsing candidates, we want to know if it’ll make a difference. Will Mandy Moore and Anna Wintour boost Pete Buttigieg’s chances? Will Jonathan Van Ness and Megan Rapinoe get out the vote for Elizabeth Warren?
But just take a step back and marvel at how, of all the presidential candidates, Sanders may have the broadest and wildest assortment of celebrities, no matter what that support actually ends up producing. A coalition of wealthy tastemakers have enthusiastically thrown their support behind Sanders, a just-barely septuagenarian whose public persona is captured by Larry David’s parody on “Saturday Night Live”: a humorless politician who would ride the bus to the hospital, doesn’t know or care about pop culture and spends 40 minutes figuring out how to turn on the TV.
In the rush for the 2020 nominations, celebrities and generations aren’t falling in line as might have been expected in a different era. Buttigieg, the youngest candidate, is far behind Sanders in attracting younger voters. Sanders’s celebrity coalition, in this universe, makes a weird kind of sense.
“Bernie is cool, because he’s not cool,” said Howard Bragman, a longtime Hollywood public relations and crisis management strategist. “You couldn’t be any less cool than Bernie, and if you saw him on the street, you’d want to take him to a Hollywood makeover show. . . . But then you wouldn’t have Bernie. There’s an authenticity there, and that is cool.”
Authenticity is currency for celebrities. The contrast between them and Sanders tracks with what goes viral on Twitter, said Elaine Lui, the “etalk” and “The Social” TV personality who runs the website LaineyGossip.com. “It fits into a cutesy narrative,” she said. Remember that video of the older lady on the subway who didn’t know Jay-Z was a famous rapper? Think of a tweet showing someone’s aunt baffled by the latest meme. “It’s like crusty grandpa and how awesome that is,” she said.
Celebrities backing Sanders highlight how his views align with theirs. “They want a Green New Deal, they want Medicare-for-all, and it doesn’t hurt that many of their fans are also Bernie voters,” said progressive strategist Rebecca Kirszner Katz. “Multimillionaire celebrities are talking about why Bernie’s plans make sense. That resonates with people because [the celebrities] are the ones who are going to be taxed.”
Lui called that “a very weird marriage” of wealthy and privileged people “aligning themselves with a candidate who is saying, ‘Hey, you are the 1 percent and my platform is targeting you.’ ” There’s either a sincere or cynical way to interpret this. “Does that mean you’re happy to pay more taxes? Or does that mean you have the resources to hire people to protect your money better?”
Sanders’s appeal among celebrities, particularly young ones or those with young fans, is reflected in his regular supporters. He’s dominating the youth vote in polls (a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday put his support at 54 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds; Warren, in far second place among that age group, had 15 percent).
Late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon, after showing audiences Ariana Grande’s photo with Sanders, asked the candidate in November, “Why is a 78-year-old politician connecting with all these younger voters?”
“That is a good question, I’m still trying to figure it out,” Sanders responded. “Ariana is not only a great entertainer, which she is. We were at a concert with her in Atlanta, just a zillion people there, she gave a great show.” And then he moved on from her status as a pop star, calling her very “socially conscious” and praising her for registering people to vote at her shows.
Celebrities once ran the risk of alienating fans by wading into politics. Musicians have long been the most vocal, whereas TV or movie stars “have to put up as big a tent as possible to get as wide an audience as possible,” Bragman said. In some genres, like with country music, vocally opposing a Republican president can alienate fans. But “in contemporary Hollywood, the greater risk is any alignment with Trump. So anything in the Democratic Party is generally not particularly dangerous,” he added.
Democrats have long enjoyed the celebrity advantage. In 2016, nearly every headliner backed Hillary Clinton. She closed out her campaign with an Ohio concert featuring Jay-Z and Beyoncé. She then lost Ohio, and the presidential race.
Trump still talks about it. “I didn’t need Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And I didn’t need little Bruce Springsteen and all of these people,” Trump said at a Minnesota rally late last year.
“If what you’re trying to speak to potential voters or your base in particular that we shouldn’t care what Hollywood thinks, what elites think, that can be a message that resonates,” said Eric Kasper, a University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire political science professor specializing in politics and pop culture. “It’s kind of the idea of turning a weakness into a strength.”
Katz, the progressive strategist, said too many celebrity acquaintances can backfire if it makes the candidate seem part of the rich. But Sanders might be immune to that trap. “It’s very hard to accuse Bernie Sanders of being elitist,” she said.
Some endorsements can get negative attention. The Sanders campaign promoted Rogan’s, and received blowback from some on the left. MoveOn called on Sanders to “apologize and stop elevating this endorsement,” tweeting in a statement that Rogan has a history of “promoting transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism and misogyny.” The campaign defended its move, saying in a statement that its goal is “to build a multiracial, multigenerational movement that is large enough to defeat Donald Trump and the powerful special interests” and that “sharing a big tent requires including those who do not share every one of our beliefs, while always making clear that we will never compromise our values.”
Politicians also have to be careful when interacting with celebrities and youth culture; there’s a danger of coming across as too thirsty. Killer Mike, a longtime Sanders backer, has challenged the notion that Sanders has pandered to rappers and their fans. Sanders appeals to them because “kids in hip-hop come from working-class and poor environments,” Mike said in a campaign video.
It’s unclear what advantage, if any, a celebrity gets by backing Sanders. Lui hasn’t seen any evidence of it boosting album sales or Instagram followers. With Cardi B, her endorsement highlights another layer of her persona. “Cardi’s gift is that she always surprises people,” said Lui. “She’s constantly revealing her multitudes.”
And then there’s the question of: Does Ariana Grande loving you even matter? Kasper likens celebrity backing to yard signs, which can signal how much support a candidate has or the health of a campaign.
“Celebrity endorsements and endorsements overall might be something that has become a necessity for a campaign,” he said, “but that in and of itself is not going to win an election for you.”
Lui, who has been exploring “the psyche of fandom,” said a particular celebrity’s worth to a candidate is also measured by the fervor of their fan base, not just its size.
“Some fandoms are inherently proactive and engaged and put in the effort,” she said, citing South Korean boy band BTS’s fan base as one of the most active right now. “BTS fans are not lazy. They’re out there doing their thing, and I would say Taylor Swift’s fans are not lazy. But some entertainers have lazy fans. They love the fame, but are they willing to get up and out of the house?”
The same could be said of a politician’s supporters.