Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Will Biden’s loss of celebrity support make a real difference?

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The last two US presidential election cycles haven’t been especially notable in the already-marginal world of celebrity endorsements. Both 2016 and 2020 pitted a well-established Democrat with heavy ties to previous administrations against a fringe-gone-mainstream Republican candidate whose own previous occupation was as a celebrity, and not a particularly hip one. So it wasn’t surprising to see an even more dramatic divide between mainstream celebs endorsing the Democrat (or saying nothing more controversial than a bland “vote!”) and a bunch of C- and-D-listers stumping for Trump, as they might any number of faulty late-night infomercial products.

This might well have gone similarly in 2024, if not for Joe Biden’s disastrous performance in the first presidential debate a few weeks ago. Now a less lopsided divide has formed as a form of anti-endorsement has come in: celebrities who have called upon Joe Biden to step aside from the presidential race and let a younger candidate attempt to take the Democrats across the finish line.

At first, it was an interestingly eclectic group, notable for aligning the likes of Michael Moore – who isn’t exactly the core constituency for a career politician fixated on bipartisan cooperation in the first place – with the likes of classic limousine liberals like Rob Reiner and Stephen King. This suggested some real traction to the idea that Biden should drop out, but was still largely limited to figures who seem a bit more likely to hop on social media and fire off some opinions. More writers than actors, in other words; same goes for figures with mock-pundit experience, like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. So there was particular headline-news grabbiness when George Clooney – who recently attended a Biden fundraiser – wrote a New York Times op-ed saluting the man’s service and integrity while also arguing that it was time for Joe to go. It may be the most talked-about celeb endorsement (or anti-endorsement) since Taylor Swift came out for Biden (and, probably more importantly, against Trump) shortly before the 2020 election. It even prompted a Biden response, with the president claiming – somewhat nonsensically – that Clooney, only being at the fundraiser he referred to for a brief period, couldn’t have gotten a proper impression of the president’s acuity.

George Clooney and Joe Biden. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Though he doesn’t give off the glamour of his former running mate Barack Obama, Biden has long been able to claim some degree of default and/or anti-Trump A-list support: Julia Roberts attended the same fundraiser as Clooney earlier this year, while Robert De Niro, an outspoken critic of fellow New Yorker Trump, narrated a campaign ad, though this seems likely to stem from De Niro’s genuine – and, frankly, delightful! – seething hatred for Trump more than some personal allegiance to Biden. (In the meantime, who has been one of Trump’s biggest boosters on Insta? You guessed it: Frank Stallone.) Dwayne Johnson, who long identified as some manner of Republican, endorsed Biden late in the 2020 race. Earlier this year, though, Johnson announced that he wouldn’t be endorsing any candidates for 2024, Biden apparently not having done enough to help change the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe.

It would be easy to see a shift like that as evidence of eroding support for Biden, and it probably is; having a major star specifically say, months and months before the election, that they don’t endorse either candidate (implying that this is unlikely to change), when it would be easy enough to simply say nothing or bide his time, feels unusual – just as it’s unusual for another major star to write an op-ed suggesting that a presidential candidate from his party must step down for the good of the country. But it’s also a sign of how micro-targeted a celebrity niche has become – maybe by force – in the social media era, where even silence has begun to seem like a tacit statement, rather than PR-managed decorum. Biden’s once-solid base of A-listers still skews on the older side, reflecting a time when endorsing a candidate felt at once simpler and less conspicuous. That’s true, too, of celebrities who have called for Biden to drop out: Michael Douglas and John Cusack are big names, but they’re sure not south of 50. Younger celebrities, mirroring younger demographics in general, may not be especially impressed with Biden’s handling of Israel and attendant failure to stop the bloodshed – which means they may not have been endorsing him to begin with.

Of course, there’s a certain tempest-in-a-designer-teapot quality to tracking the whims of celebrity endorsements, which at least some of the general public probably views with skepticism – those clueless stars and their pet causes! George Clooney isn’t casting his vote in a swing state – or, for that matter, against Joe Biden, if it comes down to it. Biden could even argue that the shifting tastes of celebrities don’t interest him, as he’s maintained the image of a folksy, get-it-done underdog for much of his political career, even after ascending to the vice-presidency. Courting celebrity? Isn’t that a Trumpian hunger to begin with? Yet big celebrities can help with big-donor fundraising – and smaller ones arguably have bigger platforms than ever before. (John Cusack movies may not bring a million-plus people to the box office in a weekend, if they’re even released theatrically at all. But that’s his social-media audience.)

From Hollywood’s love of Obama to Trump’s resurgence beginning on NBC to the sheer number of meme-based campaign posts, celebrity and politics have become more entwined than ever. Biden may not need celebrities to win, or for his sense of worth. But he does need actual support, and Clooney’s op-ed helped make him seem more like a cause than a candidate.

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