The Impact of Oprahbama

Talk show luminary Oprah Winfrey teamed up with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama over the weekend to host several political rallies in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. These events were well-received in the media and attracted thousands and thousands of supporters. Fellow South Carolina blogger Not Very Bright wrote extensively about the South Carolina rally that took place yesterday. (You can find specific links here, here, and here.)

While much has already been written in the blogosphere about what happened regarding Oprah's campaigning for Obama, The 7-10 will focus a bit more on what her endorsement and campaigning actually mean and how it will impact the presidential race.

For starters, Oprah Winfrey is a net positive for Obama. We all know that Oprah's megaphone is absolutely huge. And when she talks, her audience listens. Anyone who has ever written a book and had it mentioned on her show can attest to this. However, this is not to say that her audience (primarily older women) will allow Oprah to make their decision about for whom to vote for them. But at the very least, she will bring a lot of new voters into the process who will likely have little knowledge about the candidates' actual policy positions. And in that event, Obama stands to benefit simply because these new voters "trust" Oprah and may defer to her judgment. Keep in mind that even if only 1% of the people are swayed enough by Oprah's endorsement to actually vote for him in the primaries and caucuses and you have 100,000 people, that translates into an extra 1000 votes for Obama. And given the tightness of the race in Iowa, that extra 1000 votes matters. And should these voters ultimately decide to vote for a different candidate, it's still a net plus for democracy simply because Oprah is getting more people involved in the political process.

This is a huge media coup for Obama. Local media in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire will be talking about these rallies today and maybe tomorrow on their 6:00 and 11:00 newscasts. Local newspapers will have their resident columnists opining about how electric the atmosphere was. This story will likely make the rounds in college newspapers and on college students' Facebook and MySpace pages as well, which is an added bonus because of how strongly Obama performs with the under-30 crowd. All of these elements provide the Obama campaign with favorable media coverage at no expense to them. It's positive, it's viral, and it's free. Obama's media strategists are loving every minute of it.

John Edwards benefits by being able to portray himself as a regular guy. Barack Obama had television megastar Oprah Winfrey campaigning for him at a football stadium. Hillary Clinton countered this by bringing out political megastar Bill Clinton. All this star power, glitz, glamour, and headline-grabbing would seem to put John Edwards at a disadvantage. However, rather than being "the odd man out," he could use this as an opportunity to contrast it with his humble roots and his appeal to regular people. "John Edwards doesn't stand with superstars and movie stars. John Edwards stands with you, the family trying to make ends meet. John Edwards stands with you, the family struggling to pay for health care..." While I do believe that Oprah is a net positive for Obama, I do believe there's also always the risk of blowback in that anytime "Hollywood" gets involved in politics, the average person in "Middle America" may be turned off by that and be drawn to the politician who most embodies a sense of "averageness."

Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani should be thanking their lucky stars. Rather than talking about the scandal brewing about Rudy Giuliani's then mistress receiving a taxpayer-funded security detail, the media is focused on Obama and Oprah. And rather than focusing on Wayne DuMond and remarks Mike Huckabee made about AIDS fifteen years ago, the story of the day is Oprah and Obama. To be sure, these stories will not go away, but they do at least buy Giuliani and Huckabee some time for them to think of explanations for these stories that will better placate the media and their critics.

Long-shot veterans (McCain, Richardson, Dodd, and Biden) can use the media frenzy over Obama and Oprah as a foil. These four have the most extensive resumes of all candidates in the field. Like the way Edwards can play up his humble roots, these four can play up their pragmatism and resolve. "While Obama is acting like a rock star with Oprah, John McCain/Bill Richardson/Chris Dodd/Joe Biden is keeping his eye on the ball by keeping pressure on President Bush regarding Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and the CIA regarding the destroyed waterboarding tapes. That's the leadership these dangerous times require. This is a serious leader for serious times." The media and voters often love an underdog story, so the more Obama becomes Goliath in terms of media attention, the more that allows Dodd, Biden, and Richardson to play the role of a political workhorse called David on the Democratic side. McCain's a Republican, obviously, but he could contrast his record and his vision with that of Huckabee, who has come to be seen as the Republicans' Obama and is no longer looking as much like the David he was a few short weeks ago.

There is a risk that Oprah will make Obama's campaign seem more about "big people" than the "little people" who comprise the base of his support. Obama commonly talks about how "we" can change Washington and how "we" can change politics as usual. The thing is, however, that "we" does not really include the rich and famous. Anyone who uses populist rhetoric knows that "we" is referring to average people who are not so well connected. Will Oprah dilute this "we" by overshadowing the "little people" that "we" has come to encompass in Obama's campaign? John Edwards certainly hopes so.

Having said all that, I find Obama's candidacy to be in a stronger position now than before Oprah became a part of it. But is he peaking too soon? After all, there are still three weeks before the Iowa caucuses and he is now running the risk of setting the bar of expectations a bit too high. But then again, given the lack of actual political shopping days left before Christmas, perhaps Obama's on the right track.

3 comment(s):

Nikki said...

It is funny you mention the Oprah thing. I was going to blog about it this week. I don't particularly care for oprah even before knowing her political persuasion. I think this will hurt Hillary but it will not help in the general election at all. Oprah is Hollywood and conservatives think Hollywood is basically whacked. She is among the Hollywood elite and has come out of the closet. This is going to turn off the right. I also think he show will suffer. It now takes on a slant that half of America will always look for. She will soon alienate most of her audience which I feel were mostly conservative stay at home moms. just a different take.....

Anthony Palmer said...

I don't think celebrity endorsements in general make much difference when it comes to voting because this is one instance where everybody is truly equal.

I don't think Oprah will suffer much from this because her show is beyond politics. How can you cover "looking younger" or "finding your inner giant" from a Republican or Democratic angle?

I do, however, think Oprah will get into trouble if she starts using her show as a free megaphone for the Obama campaign. People tune into her show because of HER, not Obama.

Did people stop seeing Mel Gibson's movies after they learned about his political leanings? What about Tom Cruise and Scientology? Bill Cosby endorsed Jesse Jackson and he seems to have turned out fine.

The point I most certainly will agree with you on is the Hollywood disconnect. Even if Oprah generally gets good press, she is still seen as "a Hollywood liberal" by many people in "Middle America" and this recent endorsement of hers can backfire.

Anonymous said...

Obama is an intelligent, articulate, guy with a lot to offer this Country. I don't think Oprah will detract either from herself or from Obama.

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