election 2020

Pop-Culture Reunions Are the Democrats’ Not-So-Secret Weapon

The Princess Bride cast, reuniting virtually to support Democrats. Photo: Democratic Party of Wisconsin

It started with The Princess Bride. Then there were Parks and Recreation, Star Trek, Spinal Tap, Seinfeld, Veep, Hamilton, The Avengers, and Superbad.

All of these beloved movies and TV shows, as well as several others, have recently been embraced by Democrats at the national and state levels in the form of virtual fundraisers. The formula is pretty straightforward: Gather the cast members and creators behind a pop-cultural favorite on a Zoom call, then have them do a script read or answer fan questions while also encouraging everyone to vote blue all the way down the ticket. To get access to the experience, people must donate, but any level of donation is accepted. If you wanted to watch the Wet Hot American Summer reunion last Saturday night, brought to you by the Biden Victory Fund, you could have paid as little as a dollar and you were on your way back to Camp Firewood.

Both Democrats and Republicans are relying on some traditional methods of raising money and engaging with voters during this high-stakes election cycle: Phone-calling, texting, and even some door-knocking are still happening. Some more traditionally political virtual fundraisers, which provide face time with candidates or other members of their party, and even some celebrities, have taken place, too. But Democrats have smartly leveraged their widespread support in the arts and entertainment community with these virtual reunions, which are not only safer than typical fundraisers in these socially distanced times but also capitalize on the fact that, because of the pandemic, many people are itching for ways to replicate the experience of going to see a show. Even after the coronavirus is contained, this may be a tool Democrats continue to wield.

“This is a new fundraising model that is more fun, more engaging, and less work,” says Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which organized fundraisers/reunions of the casts of The Princess Bride, Parks and Recreation, Veep, Happy Days, Superbad, and coming Saturday, a Rocky Horror Picture Show event that will reunite the film’s stars, Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Nell Campbell. “When the threat of the pandemic goes away we’re still going to have these new innovations in how we gather and celebrate and take action together. Those will still be with us … this model of doing virtual events is a great step in that direction.”

Wisconsin Democrats set the template for these types of virtual political fundraisers. After a successful virtual West Wing Weekly podcast reunion during the Democratic National Convention, they decided to replicate the model with The Princess Bride event on September 13, which came together, in part, because one of the Wisconsin Democratic Party staff members happened to be the friend of a friend of Princess Bride star Cary Elwes.

The script reading of the 1987 movie, featuring pretty much every living member of the original cast, raised $4.25 million for the Democrats in a key battleground state.

“That became our biggest fundraiser of any kind, ever,” Wikler says.

The Biden Victory Fund followed suit with fundraisers built around The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; the original Broadway cast of Hamilton; a reassembly of The Avengers (minus, as you may have heard, Chris Pratt); cast members from five series in the Star Trek franchise; cast members from The West Wing, who played West Wing trivia; and actors from the original movie and Netflix follow-ups to Wet Hot American Summer. The aforementioned Spinal Tap reunion raised cash for Pennsylvania Democrats. And following the Veep event for Wisconsin, which raised more than $500,000, last Friday’s Seinfeld “Fundraiser About Something” mini-reunion with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Larry David, and moderator Seth Meyers raised $650,000 for the Democratic Party in Texas, a state that has a chance to go Biden’s way, according to at least one recent poll.

“Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the folks who were doing this event, they approached us,” said Luke Warford, director of voter expansion for Texas Democrats. “They looked around the country and they said, ‘Where can we make the biggest difference? Where is the most exciting state to try to do this event and push it over the top right now?’ And they chose Texas.”

There have been other, similar efforts to drive voter engagement outside of the Democratic Party, including the recent Dazed and Confused live read, which raised more than $142,000 for efforts by March for Science and Voto Latino to get the vote out in Texas. And the “Zoom Where It Happens” series, organized in conjunction with Zoom by Array, the Ava Duvernay–founded organization that amplifies film work by people of color and women, has offered a twist on the reunion model by staging readings of classic sitcom episodes — The Golden Girls, Friends, Sanford & Son, and coming Tuesday night, A Different World — with revamped casts featuring Black actors. (Participants have included Tracee Ellis Ross, Regina King, Sterling K. Brown, and Tessa Thompson.) Though not fundraisers, these virtual events focus on voting and voter suppression in an effort to mobilize the electorate. The West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote, a staged performance of the season-three episode “Hartsfield’s Landing,” also focused on voter engagement via its partnership with the nonprofit co-founded by Michelle Obama; following its HBO Max debut, it was made available to nonsubscribers as part of a Rock the Vote–backed initiative.

What impact are all these efforts having on the election? It’s hard to quantify. On the fundraising side, a single, traditional big-money event can easily eclipse the amount of cash that can be raised by the cast of an old sitcom or movie. Earlier this month, the Trump campaign raised $10 million at a private fundraiser hosted in Newport Beach, California, by Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR; the Beach Boys were the featured entertainment. In July, the campaign also drummed up $20 million during a virtual fundraiser centered on its primary star: Trump himself. But while lower-dollar, grassroots efforts like these reunion fundraisers may not generate multimillions, they do add resources to states that, in non-pandemic times, were mostly limited to in-person events pulling from more regional sources. Being forced to think in virtual terms has given local chapters of the Democratic Party the opportunity to appeal to a national audience of donors.

That expanded reach appears to be having the intended effect, at least among those who responded to an informal survey I recently conducted on Twitter. While this is obviously extremely anecdotal, several people told me they had gone to at least one of these reunion Zooms, and that their experience marked their first time at a political fundraiser. Morgan A. Richards told me that these fundraisers were valuable because you were getting a fun experience that didn’t cost “2,000 a plate.” Eleanor Harvey said something similar: “It was like donating and rewarding yourself with an ice-cream sundae. The performance was the cherry on top.” Another person said that attending something virtually was more convenient because it meant they didn’t have to get a babysitter.

Those signing up to watch these events also may be subconsciously motivated by something else: nostalgia. In his 2016 campaign, Trump tried to trigger a yearning for the old days with his Make America Great Again slogan by suggesting that on his watch, this country could return to a time akin to the allegedly idyllic 1950s, which, it’s important to note, was hardly idyllic for everyone. Even as the incumbent, he’s still trafficking in this kind of language, warning that with Joe Biden in charge, the suburbs could be infiltrated by antifa or the racially coded “low-income housing,” as if the suburbs of 2020 consist of all-white families living like Ozzie and Harriet.

As I noted in a piece about this year’s Democratic National Convention, the Democrats have their own version of nostalgia that appeals to voters, including a yearning for the days when Barack Obama and Biden were in charge, and more broadly, a time before Trump was president.

David Mandel, the Veep showrunner who participated in the Veep fundraiser and also helped produce the Seinfeld one, thinks the nostalgic feelings evoked by shows or movies from previous decades is also intermingled with viewers’ sentimentality about those eras, when political conflict existed but wasn’t quite so charged.

“I’m not going to pretend everybody got along, but it certainly wasn’t this thing where one side thinks the other side is literally running a child-pornography ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant,” he said, adding that the appetite for all these reunions may be “nostalgia for a less horrific time where we weren’t cosplaying like we’re in a postapocalyptic movie where everyone’s wearing masks.”

While, again, it is unclear what impact any of this will have on the outcome of the presidential election, one thing is clear: Hosting all of these TV/movie-focused reunions is an area where the Trump campaign simply can’t compete. There is far more support in the arts and entertainment community for Biden and Democrats in general; the main star in Trump world is Trump himself. While the president clearly has a loyal base, the opportunity to appeal to voters using surrogates and supporters with equal, if not more, mainstream appeal is pretty limited. That fact is not lost on Mandel and some of his Hollywood colleagues either.

“Republicans have been attacking Hollywood elitism,” he said. “I mean, sure. It’s a lovely target. But I think this is their greatest fear realized. It’s not a Democratic Hollywood celebrity saying, ‘You should vote for so-and-so’ that they worry about as much. It’s the fact that a group of Hollywood Democrats can get together and do a table read or do a Veep reunion or whatever it is, and raise a shitload of money. That’s what Republicans truly hate about it.”

Pop-Culture Reunions Are the Democrats’ Not-So-Secret Weapon