When 10 Democratic candidates meet in Houston on Thursday for the next Democratic debate, Hollywood’s base of influential donors and activists will be looking for a turning point —- those breakout moments that will point to the best person suited to take on President Donald Trump.
Up to now, the 2020 race has been unwieldy, as a blizzard of contenders courted industry figures at meet and greets, in one-on-one conversations and at tony fundraisers, all in the hopes of eventually being their one and only choice.
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But many in Hollywood have spread around their campaign contributions, giving to a handful of candidates or, in the case of Jeffrey Katzenberg, more than a dozen.
The debate, to be broadcast by ABC and Univision, could provide clarity in the race, as it will be the first time that former Vice President Joseph Biden shares the stage with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), both of whom have polled in the double digits along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
The event also will be a prime opportunity for other candidates who have been Hollywood favorites — such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) — to have the type of breakout moment that propels them into the top tier.
But the surest bet is that the debate will narrow the field, as the Democratic National Committee made it more difficult for candidates to qualify for the Houston event. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) already dropped out of the race because of her failure to meet the threshold, and the gallery of other hopefuls polling at 1% or less might have to reassess their campaigns. That includes some candidates, like Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), who have substantial ties to the business.
“Although it is narrowing, it is not narrowing fast enough for some people’s desires,” said Lara Bergthold, a Los Angeles political consultant and principal at Rally Communications.
As people get a clearer idea about the race, they also don’t want a candidate who emerges from the primary bruised and beaten by their Democratic rivals.
Rather, they want someone who has ”a mixture of tough campaign rhetoric and cleverness, combined with really solid plans,” she said.
Jon Vein, an entrepreneur who co-founded MarketShare who has been hosting a number of candidate events, said that he’s looking for a debate that is “something other than the ‘Jerry Springer Show,'” a reference to criticisms that CNN’s coverage of the last debate was too focused on eliciting sparring matches between the candidates.
“You can ask the same question in very different ways and get different results,” he said.
Although donors and activists in general are still watching to see how the campaigns shake out, he said, there now is a sense that “we are getting deep enough in the process that we should hear in pretty solid ways how these candidates will address the problems facing the country.”
So far, Harris has led all candidates in raising showbiz money — almost $700,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. She and other top contenders, including Biden, Buttigieg and Booker, are planning to follow their debate appearances with L.A. fundraisers later in September.
“I would say a lot of people tend to be supporting multiple candidates. They may have one or two who is their favorite but they also are supporting two or three others,” said John Emerson, a prominent fundraiser and donor and the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, who is backing Harris. “This race hasn’t evolved into a ‘my candidate at all costs situation.’”
At least not yet. In addition to looking for a clearer idea of who can best tangle with Trump, he says that there is an interest in how the “thematic struggle” taking place in the Democratic Party plays out. That has pitted those who believe that the best way to take on Trump is to put forward progressive ideas to energize the base versus those who believe that a more moderate stance draw independents and expand the electorate. He believes that Harris is a “bridge between the two.”
Warren has been absent from Hollywood’s fundraising scene, as she announced early on that she would refrain from the type of high-dollar events that have long been a mainstay of the industry’s engagement in presidential politics.
But in private conversations and phone calls, she has cultivated a number of prominent industry figures for support. As she has risen in the polls, she’s drawn praise from more moderate sectors of the party for presenting well-thought out policy proposals on a host of issues, including reining in the power of tech companies and on addressing climate change. Scarlett Johansson recently told The Hollywood Reporter that she was backing Warren.
Writer-director Adam McKay said that Warren, along with Sanders, are among his favorites.
“Spend 10 minutes with them. You may not agree with them, but you can’t doubt their integrity,” he said in a recent interview.
He said that he has met Warren three times, including a dinner with Will Ferrell and other creative types at Mozza to talk about ideas for better communication.
One conversation with Warren that stands out, though, was an unexpected call he received from Warren the day after the 2016 presidential election. He was in preproduction on Succession, and the call was a surprise.
McKay recalled Warren telling him, “Just calling to see how you are doing.”
Upset over Trump’s victory, McKay said he told Warren, “I am not doing too great. I got to be honest with you. I am a bit on my heels right now.”
But Warren was in a different frame of mind, McKay recalled, and said, “I am going to keep on fighting.”
“I knew what she was doing,” McKay said. “She was making 40 to 50 calls to people around the country, making sure we were not getting down.”
He credits Warren and Sanders for a “freakish energy for their age,” but also says that they present a contrast to a candidate like Biden.
“That is the hardest one for me,” McKay said, who considers Biden an “extremely flawed candidate” for his vote for the war in Iraq and for a bankruptcy bill he supported as a senator, among other things.
Rather, he thinks that a significant story out of the debates so far is the advancement of progressive proposals “and how everyone is talking about universal healthcare, a Green New Deal and a living wage.
“These were considered Democratic socialist ideas and extremely left when Bernie was running [in 2016]. Now they are just center left,” he said.
Here’s where top candidates stand in Hollywood support:
Biden. He may have drawn doubts when he got in the race, but a number of industry figures have taken note of his ability to remain atop polls despite his gaffes and a lackluster performance in the first debate.
Bergthold said that a question is whether his “numbers right now still reflect name recognition or do they reflect passion. We need passion.”
“I think the debate will sharpen that,” she said.
Donors and activists also are watching to see how he draws younger voters and people of color, she said.
Biden has strong ties to the entertainment industry, having trekked to L.A. twice for fundraising swings, with events hosted by Sony Motion Picture Group Chairman Tom Rothman, his wife, actress Jessica Harper, among others. He has a trip planned for later this month, and another in October.
His backers often point to polls that consistently show him doing the best of any candidate against Trump.
Warren. Her rise in the polls has drawn much media attention, even as some of her early decisions were treated as missteps.
Even though she has shunned high-dollar fundraising, she frequently trekked to L.A. to raise money for her Senate campaigns and other candidates. One of her early champions was Norman Lear, and he remains a fan, along with other candidates.
While she has drawn the attention and respect in more moderate circles, there still is some concern about how she will do in a general election campaign, and that Trump will caricature her in the same way that it did Hillary Clinton in 2016. That is something that industry figures will be watching for on Thursday. As Bergthold says, “I think people are still nervous about her ability to take on the personal attacks [from Trump], but they are equally impressed by the way she has run this campaign.”
Sanders. As much as the focus will be on Warren and Biden, Sanders has remained in the top tier.
His supporters have criticized media coverage for overlooking his prospects, and he is bound to play a factor in the Houston debate. When he and Warren shared the same stage in the second debate in Detroit last July, they seemed to dominate the event versus more moderate voices.
Some industry donors privately say that they will have a tough time voting for Sanders if he is the nominee. He held a low-dollar fundraiser in Hollywood in July, and has drawn on figures like Cardi B to help advance his message. But he’s also been attacking The Walt Disney Co., among other major corporations, for the wages it pays to its theme park workers.
Harris. She, too, plans a fundraising blitz in Los Angeles in the weeks following the debate, a reflection of how much she has cultivated industry support given her career as California’s attorney general and then representing the state. Her plans include a Sept. 23 fundraiser at The Wiltern featuring DJ Cassidy.
Polls show her in the single digits, but her supporters believe that she is well positioned to stand out in the next debate.
Emerson believes that one of Harris’ strengths is that she can “prosecute the case against Donald Trump without turning off other voters.”
He’s not concerned of her polling position, noting that it is similar to where Obama was in 2007. At this time in 1991, Bill Clinton “hadn’t even announced,” he said.
Buttigieg. He beat all other candidates in industry fundraising in the second quarter, which is quite a feat for a political figure who many in Hollywood hadn’t even heard of at the start of the year.
But over the summer, he has yet to match his fundraising strength with a polling bounce, even as he continues to draw significant crowds to Hollywood events, most recently a fete at the nightclub Avalon. He’s expected to trek to L.A. again later this month.
What donors are looking for, though, is the type of “aha” moment that makes voters set aside their concern that he’s too inexperienced to take on Trump. His campaign recently launched an advertising campaign in Iowa, which presented him as a generational alternative and someone can offer “real solutions, not more polarization.” That’s why there’s an expectation that Buttigieg will seize on the debate to better contrast himself to other contenders.
And as much as Democratic industry figures are looking to be reassured or even impressed by candidates at the Houston debate, there is a warning for contenders hoping to stand out from the pack. Creative types are expressing disdain for soaring but empty rhetoric as out of touch with the times, what with the daily chaos coming from the White House.
As McKay said, that type of speechmaking may have worked in the 1990s, when “the country was relatively on the rails.” Not now. “We just laugh when they go into poetic flourishes,” he said.