Watch CBSN Live

Gay community, celebrities a key source of campaign cash for Obama

Mr. Obama greets supporters after speaking at a campaign fundraiser September 25, 2011 at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Washington. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

(CBS News) President Obama heads to the West Coast today for a two-day, three-city fundraising swing that includes a stop tonight at the LGBT Leadership Council Gala in Beverly Hills, where the featured entertainment will be "Glee" star Darren Criss and the speakers will include talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

The event, which comes after two San Francisco fundraisers, will mark Mr. Obama's third fundraiser directly targeting the LGBT community this year. In April, he hosted a fundraiser in Florida with the LGBT Leadership Council that raised $125,000 from 50 supporters; in May, shortly after he announced his support of same-sex marriage, he raised an estimated $1 million during a New York City fundraiser co-hosted by Ricky Martin. A campaign official tells CBS News that approximately 600 people will attend tonight's event, with tickets starting at $1,250 per person.

There is no way to know exactly how much money Mr. Obama has raised from gay donors, since those who give to Mr. Obama are not asked to disclose their sexual orientation. But analyses of the president's so-called "bundlers" - the well-connected and wealthy men and women who reach out to friends, family and acquaintances for donations - suggest that a significant chunk of his campaign cash is coming from the LGBT community. The Washington Post found that roughly one in six of the president's top bundlers are gay; the Advocate reported last October that nearly one in five of the bundlers who had raised at least $500,000 for the president hail from the LGBT community. A new CNN analysis found that LGBT bundlers raised at least $8 million for the president between January and March - more than bundlers from the real estate community raised and behind only bundlers from the legal profession, the securities/investment and business services industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

"Because people don't identify their sexual orientation when they give, it's hard to make a mathematical calculation," said Democratic political strategist and gay rights advocate Richard Socarides. "But I do think it's fair to say that especially given the relative softness from some of the other communities that supported the president in 2008 - I'm thinking specifically of Wall Street - that I think the president and the Democratic Party in general is looking to receive substantial backing from donors who are motivated by gay rights and human rights issues."

"It's a significant donor group in the Democratic community," adds Democratic lobbyist and strategist Steve Elmendorf, who is gay. He said that while gay donors have become "wildly enthusiastic" about the president since he announced his support for same-sex marriage, "the community's been really important to him from the beginning."

"Any big city where you go to an event for him, there is a contingent of LGBT bundlers and donors," Elmendorf said, arguing that politically-active gay donors have long been behind the president because the difference between him and his Republican opponents on gay rights issues "is so clear."

A spokeswoman for the Obama campaign pointed to repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the president's opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act to explain support for the president from the LGBT community.

"The community is supporting President Obama because they recognize he is committed to equal rights versus Mitt Romney who has pledged to roll back rights and benefits for gay Americans," she said.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign, said that even before Mr. Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage, members of the LGBT community were among the strongest financial supporters of the president - though he added that since the announcement, "anecdotally, it appears as if there's more fervor perhaps in support." He added that "given the amount of progress we've seen, and his recent marriage equality support, all signs point to the level of engagement with the community only increasing." The president's re-election website includes a special section for LGBT donors featuring a video narrated by gay actress Jane Lynch, who discusses the president's support for gay rights. 

There's no question that Mr. Obama was highly engaged with the LGBT community before he "evolved" on same-sex marriage - last June, for example, he appeared at a "Gala with the Gay Community" fundraiserin Manhattan, and he spoke in 2009 and 2011 at the Human Rights Campaign's national dinner. He actually formed the LGBT Leadership Council back in 2007 to mobilize support and raise money from the gay community. 

Still, the president's long refusal to endorse same-sex marriage prompted criticism from some in the LGBT community, and there was speculation that anger among gay donors over the White House's attempt to walk back Vice President Joe Biden's comments that he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage pushed Mr. Obama to finally make the announcement.

After tonight's LGBT Leadership Council Gala, Mr. Obama is attending a fundraiser at a private home, which the Hollywood Reporter reports is being hosted by "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, bundlers from the television, movie and music industry have raised $6.8 million for the president from January through March.

Much of that money has come from - or been driven by - celebrities. Last month, actor George Clooney hosted a fundraiser for the presidentat his home in Los Angeles, with guests including Robert Downey Jr. and Salma Hayek. It was one of many celebrity-studded events attended this campaign cycle by the president, who has raised money with Lady Gaga, Spike Lee, Barbara Streisand and many other boldface names over the past year.

The president's popularity with celebrities, which dates back to the 2008 campaign, has become a source of mockery for Republicans. In the 2008 campaign cycle, Sen. John McCain's campaign released an ad mocking the president as a celebrity himself and drawing parallels with Paris Hilton. More recently, the Republican National Committee released a web video attacking Mr. Obama over the release of a campaign video featuring Vogue Editor Anna Wintour discussing a fundraising dinner she is co-hosting with actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The video featuring Wintour was released on the same day as a disappointing jobs report which showed the unemployment rate ticking up to 8.2 percent.

The "celebrity" attacks did not gain significant traction in the 2008 campaign cycle, but Republicans believe they can damage the president this time around by pointing out his celebrity hobnobbing against a backdrop of a still-struggling economy. "Obama's focused on keeping his job," the RNC video says. "But what about yours?"

It's a risk the Obama campaign is willing to take, however, for obvious reasons: The Clooney fundraiser alone raised $15 million for the president and his Democratic allies. Romney has raised money with reality show host Donald Trump, actor Jon Voight and musician Kid Rock, but there's no question he has significantly less support from famous names than the president.

"The Hollywood community and the entertainment community, where a lot of openly gay Americans have figured prominently, have always been able to rally financial support for Democrats," notes Socarides.

For Ricky Martin, a member of both the celebrity and LGBT communities, Mr. Obama's decision to support same-sex marriage was the latest evidence for why he has so much support from those groups.

The courage Mr. Obama showed in backing same-sex marriage, Martin said at a fundraiser last month, "is the kind of courage we expect from our president and that is why we support him."

View CBS News In