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Going Viral for Obama

Are videos featuring Sarah Silverman and Samuel L. Jackson, put out by a Jewish Super PAC, swaying voters?

Stephanie Butnick
November 01, 2012
(Schlep Labs/YouTube)

Never heard of the Jewish Council for Education and Research? Well, if you’ve laughed at an election video recently—like Sarah Silverman’s “Let My People Vote” or Samuel L. Jackson’s “Wake the F*ck Up”—you’ve seen the JCER’s handiwork. They’re the Super PAC behind the most buzzed-about viral videos of this campaign—and the same guys responsible for “The Great Schlep,” Silverman’s 2008 appeal to young Jews to go down to Florida and convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.

The organization, run by Mik Moore, 38 years old, and Ari Wallach, 36, insists that the star-studded pro-Obama videos are more than a gimmick. “There’s substance in everything we do,” Moore told me. “But how can we reach people and make them want to share it? One way is using humor, and one element is profanity.”

The formula appears to have worked. According to Mashable, a website specializing in social media news, “Let My People Vote,” starring Silverman, was YouTube’s most-shared ad in September 2012. (“Wake the F*ck Up” was the sixth.)

Moore and Wallach didn’t stumble on liberal social media gold out of nowhere: Both had experience working for progressive causes. From 2005 to 2011, Moore was the chief strategy officer for Jewish Funds for Justice, now known as Bend the Arc. Wallach had done consulting for the Coro Foundation and finance work for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.

The pair joined forces in the spring of 2008. “We met via mutual friends who had heard we were both taking leaves of absence from our jobs to devote ourselves to electing Obama, with special emphasis on Jewish outreach,” Wallach explained. They were particularly troubled by what they saw as a misinformation campaign targeting older Jewish voters in Florida. Moore pointed to anti-Obama emails sent to South Floridians that got forwarded to grandchildren living in places like New York and San Francisco.

So, Moore and Wallach teamed up to do something about it by creating JCER, a political action committee. As a PAC, JCER could accept contributions only of $5,000 or less, but the two wanted to make sure the organization punched about its weight. “The goal was to set the record straight about Obama,” Moore explained. They reached out to Silverman, a Jewish comedienne famous for her potty-mouth and her in-your-face humor, and “The Great Schlep” was born.

Obama ended up winning Florida, securing grandparent-heavy counties like Miami-Dade (58 percent), Palm Beach (62 percent), and Broward (67 percent). But was “The Great Schlep” a gimmick or a game-changer? “Hundreds of people told us they were joining,” Moore said. “The local Obama office reported getting a major surge in volunteers that weekend.” But according to AdWeek, fewer than 100 Schleppers showed. Moore said more than 100,000 people downloaded the talking points published online in conjunction the Great Schlep. “Beyond that, no idea,” he admitted when I asked about the project’s impact. “There’s a lot that we don’t know.”

In 2012, Moore and Wallach turned JCER into a Super PAC, so they could accept larger donations. Alex Soros, George Soros’ son and a major donor to the Jewish Funds for Justice, gave the organization $200,000. The donation was by far the largest JCER had ever received, and Wallach and Moore, who were now running the organization in addition to their day jobs as consultants, decided to direct the money toward projects targeting Democratic voters who they felt were more active during the 2008 election than 2012. “There’s a softening of support from 2008 supporters on the left,” Moore explained. “You just want to shake them,” he said of apathetic Democratic voters who were actively supporting Obama in 2008.

Step one: shock. “Scissor Sheldon,” an ad released in July 2012 in response to Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s pledge to give up to $100 million to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, did just that. The video featured Silverman making an explicit sexual offer to Adelson if he donated the money to Obama instead. “We wanted to make it clear that Adelson didn’t speak for American Jews,” Moore said. “It’s meant to talk about a serious issue: the role one person is playing with his money.” Some loved it; others saw it as crude.

Next came “Let My People Vote,” another ad from Silverman released in late September, this time targeting voter-fraud laws. “Wake the F*ck Up,” released the following week, stars actor Samuel L. Jackson in an ad written by Adam Mansbach and directed by Boaz Yakin based on Mansbach’s 2011 children’s book, Go the F*ck to Sleep. (Jackson had narrated the audio version of the book.) Jackson explains to different members of a disengaged pro-Obama family why they need to get involved in the 2012 election (The Super PAC takes on a more serious tone in their new Obama on Israel series, which features interviews with Israelis about Obama, conducted by Rabbi Susan Silverman, Sarah’s sister. Not surprisingly, those videos have gotten fewer hits.)

But do video shares translate to anything other than laughs? “It’s hard to go into the election and see what caused what,” Moore said. But Wallach sees their campaigns as part of a larger shift in political advocacy. “Not everyone is going to become a door knocker for Obama,” he said. “The other 90 percent still want to engage and be part of the process.” The more strategy-focused of the pair, Wallach insisted that JCER’s videos provide an opportunity for those progressive Jews who aren’t going door to door. “Our videos are meant to spark conversation between people, to ask important questions,” he said. “There are ways of engaging Jews that aren’t all or nothing.”

A prominent Democratic strategist agreed. “For sure they make a difference,” he said. “There’s so many ways to talk to voters—base voters and soft voters and truly undecided voters—why not try all the ways?” But one member of Rabbis for Obama, Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, a reform synagogue in Brooklyn, is skeptical that the videos can energize voters. “It’s partisan entertainment,” he said. “If it rallies the base, terrific. Does it make a difference? I don’t know if that’s the point anymore.”


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Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.