The Evolution of the Political Celebrity

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They've been popping up a lot lately, at least for Democrats: emails from Barack Obama with the subject line, "Dinner?" Or a contrived plea from Jessica Alba, or an "invitation" from Sarah Jessica Parker. The practice of celebrities talking up presidential candidates isn't new; it's existed since the advent of Hollywood. In 1920, when the movie industry was just starting to gain traction, Warren G. Harding enlisted conservative silent film stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to help him get elected. Nowadays, liberals get all the good celebrities—a thumbs-up from Beyoncé? Irreplaceable—but both parties still leverage their star power for votes. Celebs extol their candidates' praises during nationally broadcast conventions and closed-door fundraisers, on the sites of mainstream publications and on their own Twitter feeds.

What's new is this blatant bribery—the practice of raffling off a chance to meet your favorite famous person (including Obama himself) for the bargain price of five dollars. It's a distinctly modern phenomenon, one that's enabled by the (also very new) microdonation. Before email became a fact of life, asking for five dollars just wasn't worth it once campaigns factored in the cost of postage and processing. But in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama got an avalanche of microdonations via the Internet. Not only was it cheap to solicit donations via email, it was also easier to hit up the same donors again and again once their email address was squirreled away. Nowadays, asking for a few dollars here and there has become common practice for both parties.

But the 2012 campaign is no "Hope and Change" tidal wave; the fervor has palpably died down. So the Obama campaign—and occasionally Romney's too (who could forget his Donald Trump fundraiser?)—now have to ply voters with a possibility of brush-with-celebrity. To some, it conveys a whiff of desperation. The enthusiasm of 2008 "can't be recreated," says Mark Schmitt, a political scientist and a campaign veteran. "And that's not a failure on Obama's part, it's just the nature of things— you can't possibly generate the totally unprecedented level of interest in Obama '08 after four years of compromise and mixed success, or even if it had been a total success." The promises of a night with the stars "are a poor substitute," Schmitt adds, "but it's all they've got."

Then again, it may be a smart, if obvious, move. We place a higher premium on celebrities than we ever have, and in the case of "Dinner with Barack," it gives the president a chance to semi-publicly mingle with"real America" and vice-versa. (Although the winners are part of a randomly chosen pool, they're thoroughly vetted for the sake of security but also "diversity.")

People I know regularly give a few bucks to throw their hat in the ring. My best friend—an intelligent, serious woman who works for an elected official—enters the contests every single time, not only because "duh, I want a chance to meet Obama! Or Michelle! Or George Clooney!" but because she genuinely believes it's a good strategy.

"Meeting everyday people in that kind of way can really impact policy and work—I've actually seen that happen," she told me over gchat. "Normal people know things political operatives don't."

Either way, raffles inspire more action than a simple celebrity endorsement, which usually just ends up coloring our opinion of the individual star rather than the candidate they're vouching for. Sure, campaign sweepstakes capitalize on our obsession with fame. And these Barack dinners do take place in a highly controlled and contrived environment (though there's certainly a difference between dining with POTUS and glimpsing Anna Wintour across a ballroom at a gala). It may sound cheesy, says my bestie, but it's a "once-in-a-lifetime chance to get the ear of one of the most powerful people in the world." To people who really care, that's incredibly appealing. The Obama campaign is betting on it.

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