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Posted at 10:42 AM ET, 12/ 5/2007

Highbrow: Weighing the Oprah Effect on Politics

By Liz Kelly

Barack Obama and wife Michelle (left) with Oprah at an August Fundraiser. (Reuters)

"My money isn't going to make any difference," Oprah Winfrey told Larry King prior to an August fundraising party where the daytime talk show queen helped to raise $3 million for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. "My value to him, my support of him is probably worth more than any other check that I could write."

Last week, Winfrey formally declared her intention to hit the campaign trail in support of Obama. First in Iowa, then New Hampshire and South Carolina -- all key states early in the election run-up. Mused The Post's own Gene Robinson: "Now we're about to see whether the "Oprah effect" can do for Barack Obama what it did for Leo Tolstoy."

If Yahoo stats are any indicator, the Oprah factor may already be moving the needle for Obama. Searches on the Illinois senator are up 24 percent this week.

And, wrote Katherine Q. Seelye in Sunday's New York Times, Oprah's life-affirming Midas touch may well translate into the political arena by swaying a key demographic:

"Of Ms. Winfrey's daytime audience of 8.6 million viewers, 75 percent are women. More than half are older than 50, 44 percent make less than $40,000 a year and about 25 percent have no more than a high school diploma, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"Many of these viewers fit the profile of a Clinton supporter, which is one reason Ms. Winfrey may be valuable to Mr. Obama."

Not everyone is taking this sanguine view. Media critic Marvin Kitman, writing on last week, had this to say:

"What if Obama turns out to be the next James Frey (Oprah Book Club no. 54)? What if the campaign speeches turn out to be a million little pieces of phony campaign rhetoric, or even worse, stretching the truth beyond its usual limits in political races?"

And, wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson in New America Media, the Oprah-loving throngs turning out for her Obama-centric appearances don't necessarily translate into votes. They could just be there to "touch the garments of America's favorite TV earth mother" at a free appearance. In fact, says Hutchison, past celebrity endorsements haven't done much for other candidates:

"Willie Nelson, Madonna, Jon Bovi, Martin Sheen and George Clooney are big-money celebrities and virtual household names. They all endorsed Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. Nelson endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Bon Jovi endorsed John Kerry. Sheen endorsed Howard Dean. Madonna backed Wesley Clark. One of their picks went down to flaming defeat. The other three never came close to getting the Democratic presidential nomination."

And, if the Yahoo story linked above is to be believed, Winfrey may have some stiff competition in the form of erstwhile martial arts movie star Chuck Norris. Since his endorsement of GOP candidate Mike Huckabee last week, searches on "Chuck Norris Mike Huckabee" are up a staggering 457 percent.

By Liz Kelly  | December 5, 2007; 10:42 AM ET
Categories:  Highbrow, Oprah Winfrey  
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So far the Chuck Norris story is the bigger story here. Afterall, Chuck Norris doesn't read the NIE - he reads the National FIST Estimate... the only good intelligence official is an outed one (especially the hot blondes).

Honestly? In this country? Who's to say. I know 4 years ago Dean took a huge hit with the college-aged kids in Iowa because so many stayed home to watch American Idol rather than go caucus... (I remember hearing some incredulous political operatives bemoaning that one).

I never would have imagined we could be seriously having this conversation 10 years ago. In 10 - with the continued gutting of the public education system? It could be professional wrestlers.

Posted by: Quintilus Varus | December 5, 2007 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Vote for the Killer Kowalski/Gorgeous George ticket!!!!!

Posted by: byoolin | December 5, 2007 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I find it scary that anyone, especially a talk show host, can have that kind of power in our presidential contest. Yikes. And what about equal time? Is she going to give all the candidates the same amount of time on her show? Does the coverage count toward equal time if the event is just being covered because Oprah is there?

It just somehow doesn't seem fair--but maybe I just think that because I like Edwards.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 5, 2007 12:04 PM | Report abuse

While I find it charming that most people said they wouldn't let a celebrity endorsement affect their thoughts about a candidate, I find that hard to believe. The difference is that, yes, no celebrity would convince us to vote for someone but I bet for a lot of us, a celebrity endorsement would provide the incentive to NOT vote for someone, depending on the celebrity. I know if Tom Cruise started backing someone, my inclination for that person would drop.

Posted by: DJ | December 5, 2007 12:07 PM | Report abuse

"Since his endorsement of GOP candidate Mike Huckabee last week, searches on "Chuck Norris Mike Huckabee" are up a staggering 457 percent."

Few people would have thought to link Chuck Norris to Huckabee before the formal endorsement. In contrast, Oprah's been a public fan of Obama for a long time. As such, reporting an increase in searches as a measure of star impact is rather disingenuous.

Posted by: vh | December 5, 2007 12:08 PM | Report abuse

my thoughts exactly, DJ. i'm more inclined to be turned off by a celebrity endorsement rather than excited by it.

and by the way, quintilus varus, was that former wrestler the governor of minnesota about ten years ago. i don't even remember his name.

Posted by: methinks | December 5, 2007 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I think that it is and would be good for Obama to have Oprah actively on his side. But, if I were him, I would do right now the main emphasis on how PROFESSIONALLY he is much better than Hillary, and how he was and is visionary, in difference with her. In my opinion, it should be very important for him now, as Oprah, assuming that she is fully sincere, is taking care of her usual audience: Blck females, and elderly retired females of all races,- he needs to attract positive attention of people, who don't want or doubt to have Mrs. Clinton in White House, because of her lack of the basic intelligence and professional qualities, which all together are the very important qualities for the president, as our current, fully unsuccessful, presidency brightly shows.

Posted by: aepelbaum | December 5, 2007 12:34 PM | Report abuse

methinks, it was jesse ventura you are thinking of.

Posted by: michael | December 5, 2007 12:36 PM | Report abuse

yes, yes...jesse ventura. he was elected in 1999 and served one term. so almost ten years ago. wow.

Posted by: methinks | December 5, 2007 12:43 PM | Report abuse

VH... How many searches could there have been on those names together before last week? Seriously...

...but count me as one buying in to Gene Robinson's take. Oprah is no ordinary celebrity. As much as we all like to make fun of her, she does have a particular touch and sway with a large number of people. If nothing else, Florida in 2000 and Virginia (Senate) in 2006 should prove just how close things can be and how few votes are needed to win.

Posted by: Pompous Magnus | December 5, 2007 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Who will the Scientologists vote for? Maybe Kucinich, since he admits to seeing a UFO?

Posted by: POS | December 5, 2007 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I hate that my next future ex Mr. Bored @ Home Jon Bon Jovi is stumping for anyone.

He backed Gore, Gore lost, he backed Kerry & he lost.....wait....I think we have a trend here.


Posted by: Bored @ home | December 5, 2007 12:57 PM | Report abuse

The poll needs an additional option: Yes, against the candidate endorsed by the celebrity.

Posted by: akmitc | December 5, 2007 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Other celebrities do it, so why is it unfair that Oprah does it? That's probably Oprah's argument, but I still can think of no other celebrity whose endorsement of anything carries so much sway as Oprah's. It just seems wrong for some reason, and it doesn't give me any extra faith in Obama's ability to run this country.

While 80% answered "No" to the poll above, this is also the same bunch of readers who understand the problem with Oprah's crazy favorite things infomercial and the $20,000 shoe gift.

Ask the millions of faithful Oprah viewers, and you'd have a very different result.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 5, 2007 1:12 PM | Report abuse

The poll question should be, "Do you think celebrity endorsements will influence the presidential election?"

Yup. Especially if that celeb is Oprah.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 5, 2007 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Even though I match several of the criteria as Oprah's audience, I have to say that I've never watched her - or any other talk show (Jon Stewart's Daily Show excepted) - and her endorsement, or any other high-profile endorsement only makes me suspicious. Call me paranoid, but I always wonder what they are getting for it - or hope to get for it - if their candidate is successful.

Posted by: BeachGirl | December 5, 2007 1:27 PM | Report abuse

I admit, when I answered the poll I was saying a celebrity endorsement would not cause me to vote for a particular candidate. As soon as I clicked vote I realized there are plenty of celebrity endorsements that would completely turn me off (mostly of the completely batsh*t crazy variety). I have a list...

Posted by: jes | December 5, 2007 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Forget Oprah, how about we weigh the Sherri Shepherd effect on politics? (See today's Morning Mix, if you don't catch my drift.)

Think about it: there are a great many people watching The View that think this woman is an intelligent, informed and responsible social commentator, and regard her as an advocate for family values conservatives.

In fact, she's an ignorant fool, a religious zealot, and I'm not completely convinced she's even a woman.

Posted by: MisterBear | December 5, 2007 1:34 PM | Report abuse

But we've had celebrities in public office! Ronald Reagan! Arnold! Gopher! Maybe Oprah is looking out for her own future? Who can tell.
You know what, I'm not an Oprah fan, but Obama could do a lot worse. At least Oprah won't give the weirdo conservatives as much cannon fodder as Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda.

Posted by: POS | December 5, 2007 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Equal time doesn't really come into play until after the Primaries. in 2004 she had both the Bushes and Kerrys on. Also she is endorsing as a private citizen (at least that's what she says), but what other private citizen has the influence she has?

It does concern me, however, that after 25+ years she decides to endorse a candidate...why now? I'd hate to think that its because Obama's black.

And before I start getting "you're a racist" posts, I'm black and I do not think Obama has the experience and I don't think enough southern whites (especially republican) would vote for him, no matter how qualified he may be...same with Hillary.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 5, 2007 2:24 PM | Report abuse

No, but if a celeb on the opposite side of the political spectrum likes a candidate I do, I'm going to look into why.

I don't care what Oprah thinks. She has one vote, same as I do.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | December 5, 2007 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I speak with insider authority when I say that searches for the Chuck Norris/Huckabee combo don't necessarily indicate a likely spike in Huckabee voters. Have you seen the ad on YouTube? It's hilarious. It's ridiculous. My husband, several friends and relatives, and I, none of whom will be voting in the Republican primary, have all watched it more than once because sometimes witnessing absurdity is just fun.

As for the Oprah endorsement... some others expressed a little unease that someone with her clout is so forcefully supporting a candidate. I share the discomfort to some extent, but I also think every citizen has the right to openly (or not) support any candidate. I think balanced coverage is not going to be a problem (legally) because I think she has said she won't have any of the candidates (including Obama) on the show now that she has endorsed (hence her ability to say that she is doing this as a private citizen).

Incidentally, I don't think she's endorsing him just because he's black (though I'd guess that it makes his candidacy a little more exciting to her). I imagine she's been familiar with him for a while from Illinois politics and even if you think that he may be a bit inexperienced, it's hard not to admit that he is an inspirational speaker. I think she's feeling inspired.

Posted by: TUV | December 5, 2007 3:28 PM | Report abuse

If an average person really believes in a candidate and really believes they should be elected they would go work for the candidate, stump for them, talk them up to their friends, etc. To a certain degree that person would see it as their duty to do the right thing for the country.

So if Oprah really believes in Obama she might see it as her duty to help get him elected. The difference between her and an envelope stuffer is her sphere of influence.

Celebrity endorsements generally annoy me though. Why would Chuck Norris sway my vote in any possible way?

Posted by: Em | December 5, 2007 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Who is this Earl Ofari person and what cave does he live in that he's comparing endorsements by Willie Nelson, John Bon Jovi, and Chuck Norris to Oprah actively campaigning for Obama? Puh-leeze! I can only hope that the citation is out of context and that he realizes how preposterous that is.

I suspect that for the 8.6 million people who watch Oprah every day, her influence on their voting behavior will be similar to her impact on their reading habits, which has been nothing short of astounding.

For the other (roughly) 291.4 million of us, my guess is that her endorsement certainly won't hurt Obama with those who lean Democrat, and given his status as a relative unknown (vs. HRC) can only help raise his profile and convince people to take a closer look. And that's a good thing.

Posted by: TonyO | December 5, 2007 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Mike Huckabee/Chuck Norris ad "HuckChuckFacts":

Huckabee has a terrific sense of humor -- his stint on the "Not My Job" segment of NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't tell me" was hilarious.

But when it comes to voting, it is all about what the candidate stands for not who endorses him/her.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 5, 2007 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I'd be more likely to vote for Oprah, than the neophyte Barak.
He's creepy.

and Barak should be careful, it could look like Oprah picked her race over her gender

Posted by: B.Williams | December 5, 2007 3:54 PM | Report abuse

I love that 1% of poll voters chose the "I don't vote" option.

Posted by: rock the vote | December 5, 2007 4:23 PM | Report abuse


Chuck Norris is not happy with you. Chuck Norris will hunt you down. Chuck Norris will make you regret your pitiful life. Never say Chuck Norris can't sway the minds of the little people

Posted by: CN-KickingA | December 5, 2007 4:44 PM | Report abuse

i love this part

every 4 years it's the same thing... people like to think that the energy they see due to the visibility of the internet activism - you see a big echo chamber of people who think ideas matter, and that people will vote rationally because look at all the rational and impassioned arguments (on either side - if only people would listen!!!!)....

and then the votes come in

and every one of em looks around shellshocked wondering how they ended up with THAT candidate and why we couldnt do better

and it turns out that 55% of union households vote for Ahhnold in california - against the union mandate and what some might suggest is their best interest - and when asked in exit polls note that they liked his movies. We are the 'incompetent many' (as GBShaw once put it) - and if the next moron president is helped by celebrity endorsement and wants to hire David Lee Roth as press secretary, well, i for one am all for it. Bread, Circuses, and Fear my friends...

Posted by: Quintilus Varus | December 5, 2007 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Is Oprah much loved because she is , or is it because she's all that's happening in her time slot?

Posted by: mikie44 | December 5, 2007 9:22 PM | Report abuse

I think this poll cannot possibly capture the effect celebrities have on elections since after all if we are at the website, we read the newspaper.

Posted by: HannahB | December 6, 2007 9:50 AM | Report abuse

I quote "he needs to attract positive attention of people, who don't want or doubt to have Mrs. Clinton in White House, because of her lack of the basic intelligence and professional qualities, which all together are the very important qualities for the president, as our current, fully unsuccessful, presidency brightly shows"

Basic intelligence doesn't seem to be a pre-requisite for getting elected though. In addition to the current one, we have the potatoe guy (I know vice-, but still), one who couldn't operate a tape recorder and the one who thought that ketchup was a vegetable. The last two were re-elected in landslides.

Posted by: TonyR | December 6, 2007 1:45 PM | Report abuse

It's one thing for Oprah to endorse a product with no expectation of her viewers to buy the product. But it's quite another to endorse a candidate and use her daily platform in a concerted effort to influence voters. Her integrity has dropped a few notches in my book.

Posted by: DoobrahD | December 7, 2007 7:48 AM | Report abuse

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