By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—The conventional wisdom says that celebrity endorsements don’t mean much in politics. But the conventional wisdom also says that enormously long, difficult novels published more than a century ago don’t suddenly become best-sellers today. Now we’re about to see whether the “Oprah effect” can do for Barack Obama what it did for Leo Tolstoy.
The Obama campaign’s announcement Monday that Oprah Winfrey will barnstorm the early primary states with the candidate she has called “my favorite guy” was big news in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Theoretically, the active support of a popular talk-show host shouldn’t have much impact on Obama’s prospects one way or the other. But we’re talking Oprah here.
The Pew Research Center actually polled on the subject in September, shortly after Winfrey hosted a star-studded fundraiser that netted an estimated $3 million for Obama’s campaign. According to the Pew survey, 15 percent of Americans said that Winfrey’s endorsement would make them more likely to vote for Obama, 15 percent said less likely, and 69 percent said it would make no difference to them.
But 60 percent of respondents predicted that Winfrey’s support would help Obama’s candidacy, against only 3 percent who said it would hurt. And among Democrats—who, after all, are the voters who count at this point—23 percent said they would be more likely to vote for Obama because of Winfrey’s support, while just 13 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for him.
The Pew survey found that Winfrey’s endorsement also gives Obama a boost among women (17 percent more likely to vote for him, 12 percent less likely) and African-Americans (28 percent more likely, 16 percent less likely)—groups now leaning toward front-runner Hillary Clinton.
No one expects Winfrey’s appearances with Obama next month to have the astonishing impact of Oprah’s Book Club, which has made Winfrey—already one of the most powerful individuals in the entertainment industry—one of the most powerful individuals in book publishing. Perhaps the best example of the “Oprah effect” came three years ago when she picked Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” as a monthly selection, and the epic tome shot to the top of the best-seller list.
It’s easier to convince people to buy a book, even a book as daunting as “Anna Karenina,” than to convince them to vote for a presidential candidate. Still ... we’re talking Oprah here.
Winfrey occupies a unique place in American culture; her show offers a blend of self-empowerment, spirituality and consumerism—“Oprah’s Favorite Things”—that enthralls millions of viewers every day. Two years ago, sellout crowds filled arenas and convention centers around the nation when she staged a series of motivational events. Famously protective of the Oprah brand, she has steered clear of electoral politics—until now.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Winfrey said she will not use her “platform” on Obama’s behalf—meaning her show and her eponymous magazine—but instead will speak for him with her “personal voice.”
Why? “Because I felt it was a the right thing to do. And you know, I weighed that: What is the cost to me for doing it? Am I going to lose viewers? I made the decision that I have the right to do it as an American citizen. ... I know him well enough to believe in his moral authority. And that is the number one reason why I am supporting him.”
Timing is everything, in entertainment as well as politics. Winfrey’s upcoming campaign appearances with Obama will come less than a month before the nominating caucuses in Iowa, where a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Obama with a slim lead. Winfrey’s support might not make any difference. But if I were running for president, I’d rather have her with me than against me.
Asked by the Hollywood Reporter whether she has any doubts—not specifically about politics but about herself, about life, about anything—Winfrey gave this answer:
“No, I don’t have any doubts. I really don’t. Because I live in a very spiritual space—not a religious space, but I live in a spiritual space where I understand the connection that we all have with each other. It’s not just rhetoric for me. I really do understand the common denominator in the human experience.”
If anyone else were to say such a thing, it would sound like nothing but a bunch of New Age newspeak. When Oprah Winfrey says it, you can’t escape the nagging feeling that she knows something the rest of us don’t.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group