Oprah's a Winner. Can She Make Obama One Too?
The news that Oprah will campaign for Barack Obama has been catnip for cable news.
Is there anything more irresistible than the prospect of one of the world's most recognizable women campaigning for the opponent of another of the world's most recognizable women? Add into that mix the enhanced role of Bill Clinton as his wife's leading surrogate and the politico-celebrity meter can't get much higher.
But there is a practical and potentially crucial political role for Oprah as she heads out on behalf of Obama. More than anything, Obama needs her help to improve his standing against Clinton among African American women voters -- especially in South Carolina, a state that could prove pivotal in the Democratic race if there is no decisive outcome from contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The battle between the first black candidate with a serious chance of winning the presidency and the wife of the man dubbed the first black president has split the African American vote. Through much of the year, Obama and Clinton have run roughly even among African American voters in Washington Post-ABC News polls, but there is now a decided gender gap.
Neither is good news for Obama. He needs a decisive edge overall among African American voters and needs to cut into Clinton's advantage among black women. David Bositis, senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, believes the decision to put Oprah on the campaign trail is part of Obama's attempt to deal with that problem.
"I think he's recognized that he has a problem," Bositis said. "It's important to remember that black women are women. They're African American yes, but they're also women. Hillary is the first candidate with a real chance of winning who's a woman. That's not a small thing to a lot of women. So he has to overcome that natural advantage she has among women."
The Joint Center released a national survey Tuesday of 750 likely African American voters (margin of error about 4 percentage points) that sheds light on Obama's challenge. According to Bositis, Obama has achieved a remarkable degree of approval in the short time he has been on the national stage. The only others to score as high in Bositis's surveys over the years are Colin Powell -- and the Clintons.
In the survey, 74 percent of African Americans gave Obama a favorable rating while 10 percent gave him an unfavorable rating. For Hillary Clinton, it was 83 percent favorable and 10 percent unfavorable. No other Democratic candidate was viewed favorably by as many as half of African Americans.
"He is very admired," Bositis said. "It's not a question of any shortcoming. For someone who three years ago was a state senator in Illinois, he doesn't have anything to be ashamed about in how he's viewed. He's viewed very, very favorably. But the person he's running against is... somebody African Americans really admire and who knows black politics too."
Black men and black women have equally positive views about Obama, according to the survey. But Clinton is seen even more favorably among African American women than among African American men -- 86 percent positive and just 7 percent negative. Among men it's 78 percent positive to 15 percent negative.
Clinton has improved her standing among African American women during the course of the campaign, according to an analysis of Washington Post-ABC News polls. Jennifer Agiesta, polling analyst for the Post, combined two recent national surveys and found that, while Clinton and Obama split the votes of black men, the New York senator now has a clear edge among black women.
Last summer black men and black women supported Obama and Clinton in almost identical percentages. That's was still the case in polls taken this fall among African American men (44 percent each for Clinton and Obama), but among African American women, the findings were Clinton 52 percent, Obama 35 percent.
The Joint Center survey found that among all African American voters, Clinton has an even more decisive edge over Obama on issues and on leadership.
Black voters give Clinton's positions on health care, Social Security and Iraq significantly higher ratings -- a 2-1 advantage on both health care and Social Security.
The poll found that about three in five African Americans prefer a candidate committed to change while about a third prefer one with significant experience -- a finding that ought to play to Obama's new generation candidacy. But when asked which candidate is more likely to break the gridlock in Washington on health care and economic security, those surveyed cited Clinton far more often than Obama -- again by a ratio of about 2-1.
Although Hillary Clinton has a network of friends and supporters in the black community owing in part to her work for the Children's Defense Fund as a young lawyer, she can thank her husband for a considerable amount of the good will black voters feel toward her.
According to Bositis, the average income of African American households grew by $5,000 during Bill Clinton's second term -- more than did white household income. So positive were blacks toward the Clinton record that Al Gore won 90 percent of the African American vote in 2000, a higher percentage than Clinton received in either 1992 or 1996.
"Al Gore got a percent of the black vote that Bill Clinton never got," Bositis said. "He didn't get 90 percent of the vote because he was the second black president."
The prospect of Bill Clinton back in the White House as first spouse is especially appealing to African American voters. A Post-ABC News poll found that while 55 percent of white Americans said they would welcome the former president back in the White House, 89 percent of black Americans said they would welcome him back.
Bositis said Obama has another hurdle to overcome, which is doubt within the black community about prospects of winning. In his studies over the years, he said, he has found that many African American voters in many southern states doubt that a black candidate can win statewide office.
"Whatever else Oprah Winfrey is, Oprah Winfrey represents winning," Bositis said, comparing her to billionaire Warren Buffet. "If she can get Tolstoy back on the bestseller list in an era of shortened attention spans, then there's not much she can't do. That's something else that would be good for Obama. Especially for southern blacks and in southern states."
When Oprah finally hits the campaign trail, there will be plenty of attention given to the glitz and glitter of her appearances. But pay attention to what she says and how she says it. Will she be able to move voters, particularly African American women, the way she moves television ratings and books?
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