Las Vegas Sun

January 21, 2018

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Presidential campaigns lean on celebrities to woo voters in glitzy Las Vegas


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Singer Katy Perry performs during a campaign event for President Barack Obama Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 at Doolittle Park. An estimated 13,000 turned out for his ninth visit to Nevada this year.

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Basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson and fashion designer and reality TV star Kimora Lee Simmons campaign for President Obama during an Asian American and Pacific Islander at the Chinatown Mall on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012.

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Actors Ed Helms, left, and Ken Jeong take cell phone photos while watching first lady Michelle Obama with fellow actor Zach Galifianakis at a campaign appearance for President Barack Obama, at Orr Middle School Friday, Oct. 26, 2012.

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Paul Rodriguez.

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Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men". The show has helped bring back the '60s, including hats.

Presidential candidates are soooo pedestrian.

Or at least it seems that way, given how the parties have been amping up their Nevada campaign events with stars that may count as more A-list than the potential leader of the free world.

In the past two weeks, Katy Perry, Magic Johnson, Jon Hamm, Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, John Ratzenberger, Eva Longoria, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and others have all graced the Silver State to stump for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

It’s enough to put New Year’s Eve at Tao to shame.

But this is Las Vegas, after all — and here, this is what works.

“Pretty much throughout American culture, celebrities tend to be at the highest level of our cultural status system ... and in Las Vegas, pop culture and the emphasis on celebrity tends to be even higher than elsewhere,” said Michael Ian Borer, a professor of sociology at UNLV who studies the power of pop culture. “They’ve replaced the people we’re supposed to look up to — and politicians have lost status in that way.

It isn’t that the president — or the would-be president — doesn’t have star power. But after several years as a swing state, the idea of a presidential visit isn’t particularly unique anymore.

In the past year, Obama has been to Nevada nine times, six of those visits being to Las Vegas. Romney, meanwhile, has made at least four visits to the Silver State in 2012.

“There’s a lot of people in Las Vegas that are feeling battleground fatigue,” Borer said. “The campaigns need to jazz things up, heighten people’s interest and get them back into it. Celebrities are an easy tool for enhancing and enticing voters.”

So far, however, it is a tool the campaigns wield very differently.

Obama’s campaign has made celebrity visits and endorsements a key part of their outreach strategy. Whenever a celebrity approaches the campaign to offer support, they work to schedule appearances and outreach in the markets where it will have the most impact.

Nevada’s proximity to Los Angeles — where many of the celebs reside — and its status as a battleground state mean it gets a lot of attention.

The result is everything from Jay-Z and Bon Jovi singing Obama’s praises on the radio to thousands of screaming fans crowding Obama’s rallies for lead-in act Katy Perry — and, the campaign hopes, more votes in their favor.

“With the race being so close, the more messengers we have, the better it is,” said Aoife McCarthy, the Obama campaign’s Nevada spokeswoman. “You never know what messenger’s going to resonate with a voter. We have (celebrities) from a variety of different backgrounds and different areas. It shows what a wide spectrum of constituencies the president appeals to.”

Romney’s campaign has used a smaller number of celebrities at their Las Vegas campaign events — and usually draws less attention to its comparatively smaller-name stars.

Republicans in Nevada make fun of the Democrats’ more celebrity-focused outreach strategy.

“President Obama needs celebrities to headline his events in order to drive up turnout and make up for the lack of enthusiasm,” said the Romney campaign’s Nevada spokesman, Mason Harrison. “I don’t think we do.”

But the celebrities each campaign draws on do say something about the parties’ core voting blocs — and something about the issues they believe can decide the election.

Longoria, an Obama supporter, and comedian Paul Rodriguez, a Romney supporter, have made multiple campaign appearances in Las Vegas. Both of those celebs are gearing their campaign message toward Latino voters.

Meanwhile, Obama-supporting Perry and Galifianakis appear to be a pitch to younger voters. Romney-plugging Voight and Grammer have the most pull with the older voters who remember Voight’s movies and were devotees of "Frasier."

Celebs like Jon Hamm and Magic Johnson kind of function as swing-spokesmen, Borer said.

“Hamm’s appeal really spans a large spectrum, from the soccer moms to the 20-something hipster,” Borer said. “Magic Johnson’s ... living with HIV; he seems like the perfect person to endorse Obama specifically on health care concerns.”

But while the celebrity surrogates may each have their niche audience, their star power works across age groups — and for reasons that are downright spiritual.

“That big demographic of 18 through 45 ... they have grown up within this culture that is saturated with celebrity, almost the sanctifying of celebrity,” Borer said. “Before Nixon, there was a real valorization of the president, regardless of what side of the aisle you were on. ... The president was the patron saint of civil religion. That role has been replaced in large part by Hollywood.

“People turn to pop culture as a resource to create meaning and order in their lives, myths and narratives about what life should be or could be. Celebrities have replaced our saints. And by aligning themselves with these folks, the hope is that status and power transfers over to them.”

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