Can Oprah save Obama?

Call it the “O Factor.” Oprah Winfrey picks a “favorite book” or a “favorite thing,” and poof, it’s a best seller.

And now Winfrey’s “favorite senator,” Barack Obama, hopes the O Factor will work for him, too, as the talk-show host and media icon prepares to campaign for the presidential candidate in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But can Winfrey’s influence, vast as it is, extend to the political realm? That depends on whether celebrity endorsements, so courted and coveted in modern politics, really mean much at all in the end. But then again, how many celebrities have the reach and the power of Oprah Winfrey?

“Oprah’s in a category of her own,” says Todd Boyd, professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “She’s not a movie star. She’s not a rock star. She’s a brand. She’s one of the few people in the world who can be identified only by one name.”

And yet, with all that, you can’t necessarily extrapolate to politics, says Boyd. “You could argue that she didn’t get to be popular by being political. Politics has never been a big part of her persona. This is not a slam dunk.”

Courting celebrities generally is a mixed bag, say political consultants who’ve been involved in the process. First, there’s the negative perception of Hollywood in some parts of the country as a place full of wealthy liberals out of touch with real concerns. That’s why George Clooney, for example, has kept his support for Obama out of the public realm for now.

“As far as openly campaigning, he thinks it hurts the candidate,” says Clooney spokesman Stan Rosenfield. “You lose the heartland.”

Then there’s the fact that a campaign needs to be cautious. Because, as former political speechwriter Marty Kaplan puts it, “celebrities are always one racy joke or DUI away from an embarrassment.” (In other words, you probably don’t want Paris Hilton campaigning for you. You also might not want actress Whoopi Goldberg, who used a racy sexual pun at a 2004 rally for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.)

“You do have to be careful,” says Stephanie Cutter, who served as Kerry’s communications director in the 2004 campaign. “Celebrities don’t always provide a benefit. If you do an event with them, you own what they’ve produced.”

On the other hand, she says, the right celebrities can build crowds to reach new voters, and provide validation for the candidate. She cites the role played by Bruce Springsteen in the days leading up to the general election, including an event that brought out more than 80,000 people in Wisconsin, a critical swing state.

Did it help fuel Kerry’s narrow victory in the state? “Exit polls don’t track that sort of thing,” Cutter says, “but we do know that tens of thousands of people came out to see John Kerry and Bruce Springsteen in the weeks before the election, and voter contact of that magnitude before an election is priceless.”

In Winfrey’s case, Cutter says, “Iowa caucus-goers, especially women, will likely come in droves to see Oprah. She appeals to a broad demographic. To the extent that she helps bring out new or undecided voters, she’s helping Obama make a direct and personal appeal to them for their vote.” (An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week found Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards locked in a tight race in Iowa, which holds its caucuses Jan. 3.)

A poll conducted in September, not long after Winfrey held a fundraiser for Obama, by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of respondents, or nearly seven in 10 Americans, would not be influenced by Winfrey’s endorsement of a political candidate. On the other hand, 60 percent believed her support would help Obama, and only 3 percent said it would hurt him.

There’s no question that Winfrey’s status is unique. She’s above Hollywood, straddling the worlds of entertainment, media and philanthropy. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” reaches close to 9 million Americans each day and is syndicated to 135 foreign countries. Then there’s “O,” her magazine, and her Web site. Winfrey’s philanthropy has been well-publicized, especially her funding of a school for girls in South Africa.

In Iowa, Winfrey’s show wins its time slot overwhelmingly in the state’s four largest media markets — Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Sioux City. KCCI, the Des Moines station, has the 12th highest viewership in the country for the show.

With all that, Winfrey’s influence with women viewers — and voters — is surely of concern to the other Democratic candidates, who might have equal-time concerns.

But legally, the show would be on solid ground even if it featured Obama every day (he’s only been on twice). The equal-time provision of the Federal Communications Act provides exemptions to news interview shows, and the FCC has ruled that interview segments on talk shows get the same exemption. As it is, Winfrey says she will not use her platform, only her personal voice, to advocate for Obama.

The Clinton campaign, in an e-mail to The Associated Press, said of Winfrey: “We’re fans and we think it’s great she is participating in the process. Everyone has wonderful supporters, and we’re proud of ours” — such as Steven Spielberg, Magic Johnson and Barbra Streisand, who threw her support behind Clinton on Tuesday.

And of course, Clinton has her husband, Bill, hitting the trail — “arguably as much of a media rock star as Oprah,” says Kaplan, now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications. “This is the game,” Kaplan says. “And on the Republican side you have Mike Huckabee saying, ‘I’ll see your Oprah and raise you Chuck Norris.'” (Other notable endorsements include Robert Duvall for Rudy Giuliani and, for Edwards, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.)

Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, a former Bill Clinton aide, says that if any celebrity has the potential to make a difference, it’s Winfrey. But he sees most celebrity endorsements as having a “cotton candy effect” — they taste great, then evaporate into thin air.

“If these endorsements really meant something, we’d be wrapping up a second Gore term right now, or a first Kerry term,” said Lehane, referring to all the celebs who supported Democrats in the last two general elections.

Whether or not Winfrey ends up helping Obama, Boyd, the USC professor, suggests that she has little to lose with her loyal fan base. But if Obama were to get elected, he adds, Winfrey has a lot to gain.

“Oprah is very powerful,” Boyd says. “Like most powerful people, she wants to demonstrate her power. She wants to be a kingmaker. If she can get a president elected, that’s a big line on an already long resume.”


Associated Press Writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.


  1. Charlie Couser

    Mr. Obama is a fine young man. But, does that qualify him to be president? I think not!

    As the past 7 years have clearly demonstrated, this country desparately needs a leader capable of reshaping & redirecting this Great Nation. We don’t need another naive, immature want-a-be who isn’t capable of making the tough, independent decisions required to do so.

    Charlie Couser

  2. anthny

    Oprah could save Obama if he is backed by the right group.
    AIPAC, Council on Foreign Relations,
    Bilderberg Group, Trilateral Commission, or the hated Neo Conservatives.
    There is likly more political groups who rule but these are the one’s they want us to know about

    I think these are the groups that rule the United States.
    Of course there are some exceptions to the rule.
    I’m not an authority on anything political.
    But in the end We the people have no word in the process, unless you call paying taxes anything other then paying taxes.

    I was blind but now I see, it took me the assassination of Kennedy and 9/11 to open my eyes wider.

  3. bryan mcclellan

    Nine million brain dead, boob tube boobs, who have eaten far too many Bon Bons to wedge their fat lazy asses off the couch to vote anyway ,are going to make a difference?HAH!You can bet the only thing they are anticipating is which new designer drug will shed the pounds and clear their befuddled minds while they wait to see whose marriage Dr Phil will destroy next with his bullshit.Obama is in the tank because of her endorsement ,and Jesus Christ couldn’t save him now.If nine million boneheads make Oprah so powerful because some pundit says so, then we are indeed, in a world of Shit with no way out!

  4. JudyB

    Let me say up front that I am a big Oprah fan. Oprah has a huge following and pulls a lot of weight (no pun intended). Anytime she takes action on any issue, she makes a difference. She is far more powerful than the average celebrity, having as much influence as any of the major religeous-right evangelists, and she knows it. (I am against ANY of them supporting ANY candidate in ANY way) Though she has every right to back the candidate of her choice, I believe that because she is so powerful, she should not be out on the campaign trail stumping for ANY candidate. I can only hope that other Oprah fans will feel as I do, and do their OWN research and then make their OWN decision of who they will cast their vote for…but alas, as we all know, “this ain’t gonna happen”.