LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ positions on fracking, free tuition and breaking up big banks wouldn’t sound out of place in an Oscar winning-actor’s acceptance speech.
But in famously liberal Hollywood, long used as an ATM by Democratic campaigns, Sanders’ message is not resonating as loudly as in other progressive bastions. The more moderate Hillary Clinton has far outpaced the Vermont senator in fundraising and has a deep line-up of A-list stars and top executives among her backers.
Celebrities don’t sway votes, but they can persuade people to listen to a candidate’s message, said historian Steven Ross, author of “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.”
“It puts a candidate on their radar,” he said.
Hollywood actors, studio executives and other employees of the film, TV and music industries have donated at least $8.4 million to Clinton’s campaign and the independent Super PAC that supports her bid, Priorities USA Action, according to a Reuters analysis of campaign finance data through March 31.
A pair of Clinton fundraisers held by actor George Clooney this month, at which tickets went for as much as $353,000 per couple, is not included in that total, but were reported by Deadline Hollywood to have raised an additional $15 million.
By contrast, Sanders' campaign had raised about $1 million from entertainment industry donors through March 31, according to the campaign finance data. The Vermont senator, who called the price of the Clooney event "obscene," is not associated with a Super PAC and says he does not court wealthy donors. (Graphic on Hollywood flows to Sanders and Clinton: tmsnrt.rs/1U98K4g)
All Republican presidential candidates combined collected $460,000, roughly 5 percent of entertainment industry donations, the data showed.
Clinton’s support in Hollywood can be traced back to strong ties her husband built during his first presidential campaign in 1992, said Donna Bojarsky, a Democratic public policy consultant who worked as national entertainment coordinator for Bill Clinton’s campaign.
Bill Clinton connected deeply with Hollywood, she said, in part because “he showed a real respect for and appreciation of pop culture. He followed it, and he enjoyed it.”
Another reason for Hillary Clinton’s success in Hollywood is the backing of executives. While business people in Hollywood may be liberals, they are less likely to embrace a candidate who attacks corporations, said Ross, the historian. Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist who wants higher taxes on wealthy people and corporations to help pay for college, healthcare, and other programs.
“Corporate Hollywood is about business and the bottom line,” Ross said.
The biggest Hollywood contributors to date are behind-the-scenes figures rather than stars, with about two-thirds of Clinton’s industry support through March coming from just three donors.
Haim Saban, CEO of Saban Capital Group, contributed $3.5 million, while DreamWorks Animation DWA.O CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and director Steven Spielberg donated $1 million each to Clinton and funds supporting her.
But it is the celebrity backers who make headlines for a candidate, even if they’re not making hefty contributions.
Pop singer Demi Lovato performed at a Clinton campaign rally, and “Scandal” star Kerry Washington recorded radio and TV ads for the former secretary of state.
“I really believe in her capacity to deliver on her messages,” Washington said in an interview.
Sanders welcomed the band Vampire Weekend onto a stage in Iowa, where they joined the candidate to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers performed at a Sanders fundraiser in Los Angeles.
Clinton’s celebrity support skews toward older men and women, and she attracts more minorities, while younger personalities gravitate to Sanders, said Dan Schnur, director of University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a former Republican political strategist.
These leanings reflect those of voters in general, Schnur said, though there are plenty of exceptions.
Ninety-year-old actor Dick Van Dyke, a Sanders supporter, is happy to buck the trend.
“People in my generation are set in their ways,” Van Dyke said in an interview. “Some people are afraid he might get a little too drastic, that he might do something to upset the apple cart.”
Sanders, not known for his sense of humor, has also attracted a number of comedians as supporters, including Danny DeVito, Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman.
“Bernie is not for sale,” says Silverman, a one-time Clinton backer, in a pro-Sanders video viewed more than 32 million times on Facebook. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime candidate who genuinely represents the people.”
Schnur finds Sanders’ support among some comedians understandable. “If you decide to perform comedy for a living, you’ve probably got a little bit of an anarchist streak,” he said, and Sanders “challenges the establishment.”
At times the Sanders-Clinton divide in Hollywood has grown heated.
When actor Susan Sarandon, a Sanders supporter, said in an MSNBC interview last month that she wasn’t sure she could vote for Clinton if she was the Democratic nominee, the reaction in Hollywood was intense. Her comments were seen as lending support to Trump.
Actor Jamie Lee Curtis, a Clinton supporter, tweeted that she respected but disagreed with Sarandon, calling her position “dangerous 2 women, minorities & migrants.”
Debra Messing, one of the stars of NBC sitcom “Will and Grace,” also joined the Twitter fray, criticizing Sarandon for representing “the Bernie or BUST position which is so dangerous for our country.”
Sarandon, who has donated $2,700 to Sanders, said her comments were reported incorrectly. “Of course I wouldn’t vote for Trump,” she said in an interview with Reuters. She is unrepentant in her support for Sanders.
“We have to do something more than incremental change,” Sarandon said. Sanders is “about real change, progressive change,” she said.
She said she worries about an industry backlash against Sanders supporters, given the reaction to her statements, as well as negative comments from feminist Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about women supporting Sanders.
“It’s a much easier thing to be supporting Hillary than to be supporting Bernie if you are a woman in the industry.”
In the end, Hollywood’s Democrats will unite behind Clinton if she wins the nomination, predicted USC’s Schnur. “A Sanders-nista is not going to flip over and vote Republican,” he said.
Reporting by Lisa Richwine, editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin