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Celebrity Rich

USC’s Elizabeth Currid-Halkett looks at why middle class voters are less likely to punish politicians for courting certain types of rich donors.

No one gets elected without relying on the kindness — or, more accurately, the wallets — of strangers, and there is no denying that President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have the fabulously rich among their supporters. In June, Romney raised a record-breaking $106 million, compared with Obama’s “paltry” $71 million. But a quick scan of the candidates’ wealthiest supporters reveals a startling difference that may have big consequences for the outcome of the election.

Romney’s plutocrat backers include Ron Perelman, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Wall Street captains and industrial tycoons host fundraisers for him in the Hamptons, and Forbes eagerly writes up the happenings. Meanwhile, Obama has every A-list Hollywood star chomping at the bit to host a fundraiser for him. George Clooney threw a big party for the president at his palatial Hollywood Hills home, while Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour opened up her Greenwich Village brownstone to Obama donors. The luminaries regularly appear in photo spreads in Us Weekly and People.

The easiest way to think about this is that Romney and Obama appeal to two different groups of donors: the very, very rich, and the rich and famous. Both groups encapsulate the very definition of elite and make up the top 1 percent of income earners, a group that has become the political punching bag in the current war on inequality. So while the rich may alienate middle class voters, neither Romney nor Obama can do without their slice of these special people who donate millions of dollars and garner pots of media ink … even if, ultimately, their success will hinge on their appeal among middle class voters. In the eyes of these voters, is it better to have the ridiculously rich or the not-quite-so-ridiculously rich and famous on your side?

Obama’s campaign has struggled to find a place for its A-list supporters, as witnessed by its complicated and downplayed relationship with Wintour. In general, associations with the economic elite are seen as so unpalatable and risky that the president gave up his trip to Martha’s Vineyard and is not attending any campaign fundraisers in the Hamptons this summer.

Romney, by contrast, seems less conscious of his connections to wealth, not realizing, for example, the difference between being friends with NASCAR owners and watching a NASCAR race with a six-pack of Budweiser. Occupy Wall Street and protestors greeted his fundraiser at David Koch’s beach house. ABC reported of the protesters, “As a $400,000 dollar Rolls Royce passed the barricaded crowd, they decided to take their message to the beach — which also serves as the backyard of Koch’s home.” Still, not to worry.

Ostensibly, the idolatry of movie stars, musicians and artists may seem more alienating than Romney supporters’ piles of cash. After all, everyone knows politicians court money, even as they simultaneously strive to paint their portrait as an everyman. But celebrities, as distant and elite as they may initially seem, are the cultural currency of today’s society. Not only do so many individuals want to be just like them; the media has bred a fiction that they are just like us — throwing out their garbage, shopping for groceries, and getting lattes at Starbucks. They are Roland Barthes’ veritable mythology of the 21st century.

And no one eats up their comings and goings quite like middle class voters, who have ceased to see celebrities as an elite group and more as examples of their own potential should they get their own reality TV show or launch a successful Twitter account.

Thus in a campaign that pivots on class distinctions, aligning oneself with celebrities may be far less alienating than cavorting with the super rich. Middle class voters care what their celebrities have to say; they want to be just like them; and with the help of reality TV, TMZ and US Weekly’s “Just Like Us” spread, they believe they have much in common with stars. Being Ron Perelman or a titan of Wall Street is an entirely different matter altogether. Ivy League educations, private high schools and Park Avenue penthouses represent obvious barriers to entry — middle class voters don’t think they’ve got a fighting chance of attaining such wealth.

The thing about 21st-century celebrity is that it seems that anyone can attain it if they really try. And with that in mind, Obama’s courting of society’s favorite celebrities may actually better connect him to those mercurial middle class swing voters than all those red carpets and camera flashes might lead you to believe.

This op-ed originally appeared on the Princeton University Press blog.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and author of The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City and Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity. Contact her at (213) 740-4012 or

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