Until this year, the California presidential primary took place in June and had no impact because the nomination was already settled. But as one of his last acts in office, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to move the primary to “Super Tuesday” on March 3. Early voting has already begun in California, where voters are choosing 414 delegates—more than the combined total from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.
In theory, California’s new strategic significance should increase the influence of the state’s highly visible entertainment community. The pocket of Hollywood conservatism that spawned Ronald Reagan still exists, but the community as a whole is more progressive than other elites.
At the Golden Globe Awards in January, host Ricky Gervais mocked the star-studded audience: “You say you’re woke, but the companies you work for, I mean, unbelievable: work for… Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?” However, show business has always been a bastard child of art and commerce. Producers and executives, like non-Republican leaders of other businesses, lean toward establishment Democrats, while writers and performers veer to the left—as they have since the days of Charlie Chaplin. Both factions are fixated on defeating Donald Trump.
David Simon, producer of the The Wire and an upcoming HBO miniseries based on Phillip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, says, “I am for Warren, with Sanders as my number two, but I am uninterested in running down anyone in the Democratic field and creating a rhetorical path for the GOP to use after the primaries. If the Democrats nominate a Petri dish laced with smallpox, I’m voting for the pathogen.” In a similar vein, Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the iconic “Hope” poster for Barack Obama in 2008 and artwork for Bernie Sanders in 2016 worries, “I think Dems attacking each other could be disastrous, since Trump repeats criticisms endlessly and exaggeratedly. I’m quite nervous about the circular firing squad on our side.”
Unlike 1988, when mainstream Hollywood lined up behind Gary Hart, or 1992, when Bill Clinton charmed many of the same people, there is no clear favorite. The only candidate who had that potential was California’s Senator Kamala Harris, who attracted early support from Jennifer Garner, Sally Field, Ben Affleck, Michael Douglas, Chris Rock, Steven Spielberg, Alfre Woodard, and Sean Penn. Lily Adams, who was communications director for the Harris campaign, says her former Hollywood supporters are now scattered among various candidates.
Political Hollywood reflects a national divide among Democrats that is as much generational as it is ideological. The son of a prominent TV show runner recently sent a widely circulated e-mail to his “moderate” parents explaining why he and his friends are campaigning for Sanders—whose celebrity supporters include Cardi B, John Cusack, Ariana Grande, Emily Ratajkowski, Mark Ruffalo, Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, Tim Robbins, Steve Skrovan, The Strokes, and Vampire Weekend. On the Sunday before the primary, Sanders is appearing at the Los Angeles Convention Center with Public Enemy, Sarah Silverman, and Dick Van Dyke.
Elizabeth Warren has been endorsed by Transparent producer Jill Soloway, Handmaid’s Tale writer/producer Dorothy Fortenberry, Martin Sheen, Jack Black, Melissa Etheridge, John Legend (who recently campaigned with her), and Jane Fonda, who hosted a grassroots conference call for Warren on President’s Day on which she told the faithful, “We cannot be moderate in a radical time. Elizabeth is brave, bold and understands all of the problems. She will deal not just from pragmatism but with humanity, compassion, and empathy.”
Adam McKay, director of The Big Short and Vice, contributed both to Sanders and Warren and hopes they run together. The Vermont senator’s lead in California polls is causing angst among many more traditional Democrats, some who believe the debatable theory that Sanders was partially responsible for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, and many who are worried about his electability.
Joe Biden got early support from Rob Reiner, Tom Hanks, and Scarlett Johannsen. Before Andrew Yang dropped out, his advocates included Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), David Chappelle, and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. Prior to Amy Klobuchar’s surge in New Hampshire, she did not have many visible Hollywood supporters, though some moderates are giving her a second look. Tom Steyer, a native of Northern California, has a low profile in Hollywood and has been polling at less than 3 percent statewide.
The moderate with the most passionate supporters in the community is Pete Buttigieg, whose advocates include David Geffen, Seth MacFarlane, Michael J. Fox, and Kevin Costner. Producer Laurie David insists that the former South Bend mayor “is a very progressive candidate. You can be progressive and reasonable.”
Electability is the rhetorical coin of the realm. Sanders and Warren partisans claim that only their candidates can attract a sizable enough turnout of young voters to overcome Trump’s base—but they can’t prove it. Despite nationally published polls that show Sanders faring as well or better than other candidates against Trump, moderates cite private surveys that show Sanders losing in the swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan and endangering newly elected House members in swing seats. However, the line between statistics and ideology is often blurry. Many who cite this “data” also confidently predicted that Clinton would win in 2016. After the New Hampshire primary, an adviser to several local power brokers balefully quoted the opening line from screenwriter William Goldman’s memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.”
Another anti-Sanders rationale was articulated by Haim Saban, a significant Democratic fundraiser who amassed a fortune from the Power Rangers franchise. Saban told The Hollywood Reporter that he “profoundly dislikes Bernie Sanders” because “he thinks every billionaire is a crook. ”
Other than Sanders’s growth in the polls, the most palpable trend in the days leading up to the primary was a reluctant increase in support for former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has endorsed Bloomberg, but many in the creative community who appreciate his generous funding for gun control and environmental issues remain in the closet because of discomfort about complaints from former female employees and his previous support for stop-and-frisk policing.
Nevertheless, although Sanders supporters such as Michael Moore complain that Bloomberg is trying to buy the election, there are many on the Hollywood left who think that may actually be a reason to support him—even after his weak debate performances. California’s vast geographical size makes television advertising particularly significant here, and Bloomberg ads are ubiquitous. Several activists whose personal ideology lines up with Sanders and Warren told me they’re attracted to Bloomberg because they believe that the amount of money he would spend could make the ultimate difference against a Trump campaign that will be far better funded and organized than the last one. However, Robert Greenwald, who directed the documentary Suppressed: The Right to Vote, cautions, “Money doesn’t always translate into victory. Hillary spent more money than Trump did last time.”
Many in Hollywood are focusing on work that connects with audiences emotionally, hoping to influence the climate of opinion that will frame policy regardless of who gets the nomination. Adam McKay has sold a show about global warming to HBO Max. David Simon’s The Plot Against America imagines a victory by pro-Nazi Charles Lindberg in the 1940 election because “it’s an allegory for complicity and resistance. All you have to do is substitute black and brown people and Muslims for American Jews. Just change the nature of the other and watch a demagogue go to work. “
Shepard Fairey is collaborating with the ACLU to create large murals in battleground states. “Voting is an act of defiance. I don’t say it’s a duty to vote, but that it’s something they are trying to take from you. They are putting messages out there to make you feel it’s all corrupt. The people in control don’t want to you to vote. The way to be true to your rebel self is to vote while you still can.”
In early February, Jane Fonda brought “Fire Drill Fridays” to the Los Angeles City Hall, where she, Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix, and 97-year-old Norman Lear got arrested for civil disobedience to draw attention to climate change and local environmental problems.
Unless there is a rapid consolidation of moderates or Warren pulls off a miracle, there is a significant chance of a brokered convention. If Sanders wins a plurality of votes and delegates but falls short of a majority, the prospect of nominating someone who fared even worse in the primaries seems like a dubious strategy for galvanizing the Democratic base.
Some in Hollywood fantasize about another Californian as a compromise candidate, one who has already proved she can stand up to Trump and effectively motivate all ideological factions among Democrats: Nancy Pelosi. On the other hand, moderates who have been calling for “unity” to defeat Trump may just have to suck it up and get Bernie’s talking points from their kids.