Democrats Turn to Hollywood for Messaging Help
LOS ANGELES — The Democratic National Committee and members of Congress are turning to Hollywood for help with voter turnout and messaging ahead of the midterm elections and 2020 presidential campaign, quietly consulting with a group of actors, writers and producers here.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez, several House members and other top elected officials have already met with the group, formed by members of the entertainment industry in the wake of the 2016 election, that participants liken to a TV writers’ room, complete with producers of such programs as “Veep.” The existence of the group and details of the meetings have not been previously reported.
The group has discussed targeted voter-registration programs with visiting Democrats, as well as the party’s framing of issues ranging from abortion rights to gun control. In one recent meeting, a Midwestern senator sought advice about how to discuss gun control with conservative-leaning voters in his or her state, multiple participants said.
Participants declined to identify the senator or other elected officials who have visited.
“We’re a messaging strike force, mostly around voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Mathew Littman, a former Joe Biden speechwriter who helped to organize the group with Stephanie Daily Smith, a political consultant based in Los Angeles.
The group is primarily focused on programs to increase voter registration, and the DNC’s involvement is limited to that effort. Participants say they are developing programs targeting young people, black voters and Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria — a potentially significant voting bloc for the Democratic Party in Florida and other key states.
But the meetings have also served as an opportunity to address broader messaging issues, with several House members explicitly requesting help on speechwriting and overall messaging, participants said. In meetings with candidates and DNC officials, group members have urged the party to adopt a more aggressive communications strategy than the party mustered in a demoralizing 2016 presidential campaign.
“One of the first things we were at least talking about in the beginning meetings was how to improve upon the message as to what does the Democratic Party stand for, what does that represent,” said Andrew Marcus, who owns the television and film company Apiary Entertainment. “When the Republican Party or [President Donald] Trump is able to say ‘Make America great again’ and nobody that I know can tell you what the DNC or any of the leading candidates’ slogans [are], I think that’s a marketing problem.”
Alex Gregory, a writer and producer, said he has lobbied Democrats in their meetings to tie in vitro fertilization to abortion rights debates, while generally encouraging Democrats to adopt “more emotional content” in their messaging.
“It really is focused on … what do we stand for? In some ways, how did we lose?” Gregory said. “It is a moment of soul searching right now, in that we lost to an insane person … and that was more appealing than what we had to offer.”
The group conducts conference calls, shares an email list and has met about five times since September, Littman said. It involves about 35 members, including producers, show-runners, executives, directors, an animator and actors such as Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Jason George, Alyssa Milano and Helen Hunt.
They hold midday meetings, typically at the Century City headquarters of the public relations giant PMK-BNC, seated around a long table in a 14th-floor conference room overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. Littman, who ran government affairs for Broadcom Inc. and runs the meetings, said the elected officials are promised anonymity in order to speak freely.
In one of the group’s first projects, members are working to find young celebrities who might post videos of themselves registering to vote. Targets include stars of the TV comedy “Black-ish” and celebrities with ties to Puerto Rico. The group is also discussing a college campus voter registration drive that would include some kind of VIP concert or other experience for students who register large numbers of voters.
David Mandel, executive producer of “Veep,” said “it’s disgusting what happened” with the government response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico and that if Democrats can drive up registration in Florida and Texas, “those numbers can make a difference.”
Of the group’s long-term goals, the producer Cindy Cowan said, “We’re looking at November. But our bigger end game, like most people’s end game, is the presidential.”
Though Hollywood professionals and celebrities have long maintained ties to the Democratic Party, their significance has largely been limited to their ability to raise money for candidates and causes. The group meeting is unusual for the lack of a direct fundraising tie.
“I was looking for something to do that didn’t involve giving money,” Gregory said. “What I like about this thing is it’s not transactional.”
For the DNC and Democratic politicians who participate, the group’s meetings provide an opportunity to deepen relationships with a significant donor pool. But participants said they do not sense a soft pedal for contributions, and fundraising is explicitly prohibited.
“Right now, this is a lot of connecting us to talent and other influencers who have a large social media following or are well known in various communities in order to help us engage voters and highlight the importance of voting,” said DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa. “These are creative influencers that are bringing to the table their creative minds in order to best reach out to these voters.”
The arrangement draws not only on Hollywood’s stable of liberal-leaning celebrities — who have been used in voter registration efforts and political campaigns for years — but also on the industry’s creative expertise, which Democrats have traditionally been slower to exploit.
Daily Smith said entertainment industry professionals “wanted to give their intellectual capital” and that after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, “The one thing we learned is that we can’t take anything for granted, and we should be asking everyone for help right now.”
“One of our strengths is an incredibly creative community that knows how to message and knows how to reach people and can come up with hopefully some kind of messaging for the DNC and others that can help going forward,” said Craig Zisk, a director and producer involved in the group. “We do it for movie posters, we do it for TV Guide slug-lines, and we want to be able to do that for the DNC.”
The group is only beginning to emerge from its infancy, and the significance of its efforts is unclear. In addition, participants are acutely aware of the backlash the Democratic Party has long endured for its ties to Hollywood — exacerbated by sexual harassment scandals that have tarnished the industry. Republicans frequently have made a cudgel of “Hollywood values,” and out-of-state Democrats who raise money here have routinely been pilloried for the association at home.
“Look, the world knows they don’t necessarily need Hollywood telling people what to do,” Mandel said. “I have no desire to tell people what to do.”
However, Mandel said, “One thing I think we are pretty good at is getting the word out on something.”
Livingston, of “Office Space” and “Boardwalk Empire” fame, suggested the group may also help celebrities hone their approach to political campaigning “in a way that’s helpful, and not just self-congratulatory,” describing the meetings as “really more a chance for politicians to educate me about politics.”
Livingston, who grew up in Iowa, said he thought he could be helpful in the Midwest.
“I’m a little more familiar with who the Trump voters are, because I have some Trump voters in my family,” he said. “We’re going to need some people who voted for Trump to vote for some Democrats this time around.”
He added, “If they think that’s helpful, I’m offering it.”