Big stars come out for Biden – but much of Hollywood wrestles with 2024 endorsements in a polarized world

The Biden campaign is trotting out big names to deliver their message to voters, but leading up to the 2024 election, many in Hollywood are wary of jumping into the fray amid a hyper-divisive political landscape, multiple sources told CNN.

CNN spoke with a dozen publicists, agents and political strategists who are advising celebrities this upcoming election cycle. All of these individuals described the high risk involved for public figures to make an endorsement in today’s polarized world, explaining that many celebrities might instead align themselves with specific issues rather than a candidate this year.

More endorsements are expected in the months to come and will kick into high gear between the Democratic National Convention in August and Election Day, multiple sources told CNN. In the meantime, Biden campaign officials are in discussions behind the scenes to prepare for those rollouts, stressing that they carry more influence closer to Election Day.

In quick succession, this past month, the Biden campaign has announced a June fundraiser with Julia Roberts and George Clooney, as well as an ad narrated by longtime Trump critic Robert De Niro, who participated in a news conference outside the former president’s criminal trial on Tuesday – showcasing the star power they’ve already acquired.

But political strategists working across the entertainment business express particular concern over Young Hollywood speaking up, which they believe can serve as a pivotal megaphone to help engage Gen Z voters and younger millennials.

This year, getting younger voters out to the polls is crucial – and they’re top of mind for the Biden campaign.

“You still have a lot of young voters, in particular, who have not yet tuned in to the presidential election. And so that’s why this campaign is relentlessly focused on reaching voters where they are right now, not waiting until September or October,” Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler told CNN’s Kate Bolduan Wednesday.

But the Israel-Gaza conflict has emerged as a key issue for the TikTok generation – many of whom are first-time voters this election, and don’t agree with the Biden administration’s handling of the war in the Middle East.

“The dream would be to get someone like Zendaya, who is the biggest Gen Z star, or Taylor Swift who covers every rubric for mass appeal,” a political strategist said, though this individual does not work for the Biden campaign and has no insight into the celebrities the campaign may be targeting.

With polls showing President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in a tight race ahead of Election Day in November, celebrity endorsements may hold outsize influence to help get voters to the polls this year.

“It will be the usual suspects” getting involved in the political process, one celebrity publicist told CNN. “But four years ago, who were you if you weren’t speaking out?”

The Biden campaign had long been hoping to roll out more big-name supporters closer to the election, but aides in Wilmington are attempting to take a wider view and are hoping for more than just endorsements, urging celebrities and their teams to think expansively about maximizing their impact on social media followers and beyond.

“People know who Biden is,” Adrienne Elrod, a senior advisor and spokesperson for the Biden campaign told CNN. “We need to make sure they’re delivering our message to their audiences during the most important time of the campaign.”

Historically, Hollywood has rallied around Democratic candidates, pushing the entertainment industry’s massive influence as elections approach – but this year, there is more trepidation to speak out. In 2008, the Obamas were Hollywood’s it-couple, counting Clooney, Jay-Z and Beyonce as close friends. In 2016, celebrities fiercely backed Hillary Clinton in her race against Trump and in 2020, stars staunchly supported Biden to avoid a second Trump term.

President Barack Obama dances with his wife and First Lady Michelle Obama as Beyonce sings

According to multiple sources consulting celebrities who spoke to CNN, celebrities are weighing whether or when to publicly endorse Biden for the 2024 election amid an increasingly fraught political landscape and as simmering tensions over Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza escalate across the country.

“It’s a different world than it was 10 years ago. You can’t make anyone happy. You can’t win,” another celebrity publicist told CNN.

“Celebs feel, more than ever, that the perceived cost is higher,” a political strategist who advises Hollywood stars added. “Is it even worth it?”

Take Mariah Carey for example: Last December, the “All I Want for Christmas is You” singer took her two young children for a family visit at the White House, where she hung ornaments in the Oval Office and posed for photos with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

She intended to spread some holiday cheer. But what she got in return was a scathing comment section, filled with accusations that she was turning a blind eye to the suffering in war-torn Gaza.

“He is supporting and contributing to a genocide,” one commenter wrote. “All I Want For Christmas is for you to open your eyes.”

“Disgusting. Another celebrity I’m ready to cross off the list,” another person commented on Instagram.

CNN has reached out to Carey’s team.

Aides know the 81-year-old president needs as much help as he can get to appear in touch with popular culture. And while some in Hollywood are eager supporters – Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones hosted a Biden fundraiser in New York last month, Mark Hamill went in for his own Oval Office visit earlier this month – others recognize that aligning themselves with Biden is a risky move in a divisive, social media-driven world.

In fact, aligning with candidates – at all – this year could prove challenging. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who endorsed Biden in 2020, recently told Fox News that he won’t be endorsing any candidate this time around.

And rapper Cardi B, who staunchly supported Bernie Sanders in the past and then Biden in the last election, told Rolling Stone in a recent interview that she won’t be voting in this election. Over the years, Cardi B has been one of the most influential, politically active celebrities on social media to galvanize her followers to get out to the polls.

But this year, she told the magazine that neither Trump nor Biden has the best interest of Americans.

“I don’t f— with both of y’all,” she bluntly said.

Even before the war erupted in the Middle East, celebrities and their teams had been grappling with when and on which topics to vocalize potentially controversial opinions in an increasingly fraught United States – especially as a large portion of the country has continued to show support for Trump.

In a show of the power of celebrity, a star-studded Radio City Music Hall fundraiser in March raked in a then-record $26 million for Biden’s reelection campaign. Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Ben Platt, Cynthia Erivo and Lea Michele performed at the glitzy New York City gathering that brought together Biden with former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in conversation with Stephen Colbert. Even then, Israel’s war in Gaza loomed large over the evening with protestors inside and outside the venue.

President Joe Biden, former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton participate in a discussion moderated by Stephen Colbert, host of CBS's

Such endorsements are part of a strategy to get to voters who may otherwise be hard to reach, according to Alyssa Cass, a Democratic political consultant and partner at Slingshot Strategies, who explained, “When you’re looking for cues on how to vote, someone you watch in the movies or watch playing sports that you like more than either of the two candidates, that’s something to go on.”

Celebrities may be particularly important in an election year where neither candidate is especially popular among voters, Cass said, adding that the timing of their endorsement is also crucial.

“You want it to be much closer to the election when those infrequent or non-voters or first-time voters are really starting to pay attention,” she said.

A Democratic strategist said that celebrities are “really good to capture attention and get earned media and get a crowd to get out the vote,” adding that some celebrities are privately sharing they’re not comfortable endorsing a candidate right now but are expected to come around as Election Day nears.

In 2020, some high-profile celebrities endorsed Biden closer to Election Day, including Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, and Alex Rodriguez – all of whom backed Biden in October of that year.

For celebrities, the upside in aligning themselves politically is taking advantage of the responsibility and privilege that comes with a massive public platform to rally for issues they believe can improve the country.

“Celebrities are not going to be saying, ‘I’m so passionate about Joe.’ But they will, even at a distance, be supporting Biden,” one of the celebrity advisors who spoke with CNN said. “Everyone will find their path and will find ways that are helpful ultimately to Joe Biden – but they might just not standing there with Joe Biden.”

High-powered agents, publicists, managers, and strategists have been participating in regularly scheduled Zoom meetings to discuss organizing and mobilizing voters, multiple sources told CNN.

And exclusive fundraisers – without cameras – have shown the extent of Hollywood’s support, including one hosted last December by movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, a longtime Democratic supporter who is co-chair of Biden’s campaign.

Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg’s DreamWorks co-founder, also recently took on a role with the reelection campaign to provide strategy for the Democratic National Convention, according to a source familiar.

During a visit to Los Angeles earlier this year, Biden had an intimate, private meeting with heavy hitters in Black Hollywood. The off-the-record and candid conversation centered around the issues that matter most to the Black community, according to a source with knowledge of the gathering.

“There is the performative celebrity, and then there is the celebrity who does the work behind the scenes,” a top talent representative said. “Just because someone isn’t posting or hosting an event doesn’t mean they’re not being active.”

Many Hollywood reps who spoke to CNN believe the historically engaged Democratic celebrity activists will show up to stump for Biden as the election approaches — the likes of Eva Longoria, Shonda Rhimes and Connie Britton, who has already sent out a Biden fundraising email.

As the war in Gaza drags on, the White House’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has made Biden increasingly unpopular among many voters –  with 71% of voters disapproving, according to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS.

The war has become especially toxic in Hollywood, showcasing a rare moment of deep divide in an industry that is typically unified on public messaging.

Stars like Susan Sarandon, who was fired by her agency for comments she made at a pro-Palestinian rally perceived to be antisemitic, have lost work. And “Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer was denounced by over 1,000 Jewish professionals in an open letter, after he said the Holocaust has been “hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people” during his Oscars acceptance speech.

“In Hollywood, there is this real dividing line on Israel and Gaza. Something as simple as which pin you wear on the red carpet – it’s like putting on a jersey,” said Democratic political strategist Jordan C. Brown, who has worked closely with celebrities in advisory roles for the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Obama.

Throughout award season, pro-Palestinian stars like Ramy Youssef, Billie Eilish and Mark Ruffalo wore “Artists4Ceasefire” pins, while others wore yellow ribbon pins to call for the release of the hostages held in Gaza. Rapper Macklemore released a song earlier this month praising college students who are protesting the war and vowed that he wouldn’t vote for Biden in November.

Billie Eilish at the 96th Annual Oscars in March in Los Angeles.

The Artists4Ceasefire petition launched shortly after Israel’s retaliatory strikes began in Gaza following Hamas’ October 7 attack. Hundreds of Hollywood signatories urged Biden to call for a permanent ceasefire, including Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Cynthia Nixon, Drake, Dua Lipa and America Ferrera.

Some pro-Israel, Jewish celebrities have spoken out to raise awareness for the hostages and have made trips to Israel, including actress Debra Messing, Tiffany Haddish, and music executive Scooter Braun. Comedian Michael Rapaport, who has historically been one of Trump’s loudest critics, recently said on his Instagram that he now thinks Trump is going to win the election because of “anti-Jewish screaming on college campuses.”

Brown said that the division in Hollywood echoes the real-world problems for the Biden administration.

“For Arab Americans, Biden and Harris are perceived as being totally in the tank of Israel. But for American Jews, it’s not enough,” Brown said.

Multiple individuals who work at the intersection of celebrity and politics expressed a sense of trepidation across Hollywood to publicly endorse Biden at this stage, but a willingness to engage more on policy – especially on key issues like climate change and abortion.

“Hollywood will go hard for reproductive health and reproductive freedom. There is no downside,” Brown said.

Sources told CNN they believe that abortion bans across states will drive celebrities to get involved in the election. Sheryl Lee Ralph recently joined Harris for a Pennsylvania campaign event focused on reproductive freedom.

“They’re not going to not engage and let Donald Trump pass a federal restriction on abortion,” said an A-list adviser who works to pair major stars with cause-based initiatives. “Republican positions on issues will drive celebrity enthusiasm.”

Aside from abortion, climate change will be a key issue for Hollywood as it has long been a top cause for celebrity environmentalists like Leonardo DiCaprio, who endorsed Biden in the past.

“Do you want billions and trillions of dollars spent on the environment, or not? You can’t make an argument, at all, that Donald Trump has been better on that issue than Biden,” the advisor sayid.

In recent months, celebrities have been engaging with the administration on their top issues. Kim Kardashian recently joined Harris at the White House for a roundtable to discuss pardons issued by Biden. Kardashian also visited Trump during his presidency on the same issue.

Reality-television star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian attends an event to discuss criminal justice reform with Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 25.

Back in January, Halle Berry sat down with first lady Dr. Jill Biden to discuss women’s health.

But there may be no galvanizing force more powerful for some in Hollywood than beating Trump.

“Biden is complicated to support right now for a number of reasons,” another publicist said. “But the other option is absolutely not supportable.”

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