Few thought that a senator from a small, rural state had any real chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His platform was far more liberal than the average Democratic voter. His political experience was limited to the retail politics of a tiny, white state rather than running a national campaign. And an establishment candidate who had been waiting patiently was about to be crowned as the nominee. And then, Senator George McGovern won.
The story of McGovern’s victory is one that has been told time and time again by the media as a potential allegory to Senator Bernie Sander’s insurgent primary campaign and a reminder that firebrand rebels can occasionally win. But beyond the superficial similarities between the two senators, they both share one more trait that could signal potential victory: victory (or coming close to it) in the celebrity primary.
Sanders has certainly not won all—or even many—of the big name celebrities. Beyoncé, Amy Poehler, and even Magic Johnson remain early and staunch Clinton advocates. And Clinton is widely considered to have also clobbered any potential challengers in the traditional invisible primary of swaying party elites and donors, further complicating Sanders’s run. But Sanders has been steadily gaining traction among one small staple of the Democratic coalition—one that is often underestimated for the political actor that it is: the celebrity and near-celebrity class, or, more accurately, the B-list stars. He recently announced the endorsement of over a hundred more small celebrities for his campaign, placing him firmly in the “pop culture spotlight” once again as the candidate of young whites, Redditors, and politically involved media personalities.
Several factors make Sanders’s list of endorsements among smaller celebrities noteworthy. There is, of course, the obvious financial advantage of having a moderately wealthy and liberal set of individuals ready to give to your campaign, especially when said campaign has sworn off Super PACs and other receptacles of large sums of cash. The mid-level celebrities that are endorsing Sanders, people like comedian Sarah Silverman or writer and director Adam McKay, are not going to be giving six figure sums. But Sanders is operating under the old rules that still govern campaign election spending, as opposed to Super PAC spending, where donations can be capped and thousands of dollars is often the upper limit. These smaller but significant sums that such celebrities might give may be exactly the small influx of funds for which his campaign is looking and for which it can realistically hope.
Even in a “normal” Democratic campaign, celebrities play a vital financial role. In 2012, a single celebrity fundraiser netted the Obama campaign $15 million—about as much as Sanders raised total during the first quarter of his campaign. Sanders may not be looking for sums like this from his own supporters, but it doesn’t hurt his campaign to know that such sums are possible on the far left of the political spectrum, especially given that outside groups are preparing to spend billions of dollars on the upcoming presidential race.
Yet beyond financial practicalities, there is also a broader strategic significance to Sanders’s recent spate of cultural endorsements. Like other left-wingers before him, Sanders did not start off as the preferred candidate for any sector of the party establishment. Instead, he has been mostly treated with a mixture of begrudging tolerance and occasional attacks by those who form the widely defined category of party leadership. McGovern, similarly, was not the party’s choice in 1972. And to some degree, neither was Elizabeth Warren before her successful, populist run for senate in 2012. But both candidates, along with others before and after them, started off with the same element Sanders has: an activist liberal base, that receives much of its funding through small donations (which Sanders has already reigned in) mostly from a handful of wealthy celebrity backers.
And Sanders’s “celebrity” supporters are not just actors, writers, or directors either. An odd patchwork of wealthy donors with pet causes, businesspeople desperate to prove progressive credentials and give back like Ben and Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenberg—and, of course, the occasional B-list celebrity with a passion to give to a campaign and become “political”—coalesce to form this progressive bedrock of necessary money. While that group hasn’t completely solidified around Sanders, they haven’t run to Clinton either creating a small opening of enthusiasm exploitable by a candidate, who is able to see the possible advantage and use it while it lasts.
Of course, Sanders still has quite a distance to make up, not just to win the celebrity primary, but also make that win matter for the larger campaign. Hillary’s campaign already out paces Sanders’ in terms of fundraising, polling, and of course endorsements. But past candidates can provide a guide to moving forward if he is able to come close to closing the gap.
McGovern pumped his Hollywood backers for all the cash and enthusiasm they could squeeze into his campaign, in turn giving his run a boost across the country simply due to the fame of his donors. In fact, such endorsements were among the first he received, even while the rest of the 1972 Democratic field was busy trying to win over only the most established leaders. Senator Warren capitalized on her own celebrity support by raising funds, not just from the celebrities in question but also, by using the attention celebrities brought to her campaign to raise further funds from smaller donors who in turn learned about her.
None of this on its own means that a potential victory for Sanders in the “celebrity primary” would mean victory in the actual primary elections to come and certainly not in the general election. But a path to the nomination can at least be found in grassroots insurgent candidacies of past candidates like George McGovern through the financial and cultural capital that a group of influential Hollywood and cultural figures can help deliver. And if Sanders is able to leverage his own growing appeal among this subset of the Democratic base, he may have a chance once the voting starts in February.