Can Oprah Help Get Obama into the White House?
If you picked it up with a pair of tweezers and plopped it down in a sterile laboratory environment, the conversation which took place between Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama on Oct. 18, 2006, probably wouldn't look so good under a microscope.
Here were two people with impeccably manicured public images bemoaning the calculated spin of politics. Two professionally driven people paying homage to life outside of work. If you tested the exchange for traces of organic life, the results would probably come back negative.
But thanks to the fertile emotional agar of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the interview was well received. In the end, the proven convention-hall orator walked away with some much-needed small-room credibility. At one point, Ms. Winfrey asked the senator from Illinois about his presidential ambitions. "So if you were ever to run ... would you announce on this show?"
"I don't think I could say no to you," replied Mr. Obama. And a few seconds later: "Oprah, you're my girl."
Ms. Winfrey did not get to break the big news -- but she is definitely Obama's girl, supporting the Illinois senator's presidential bid in her typically big, multiplatform way. And now, the the "My Girl" interchange is campaign-famous.
In what the Internet universe refers to as "meatspace," there's the big Sept. 8 fund-raiser for Mr. Obama -- to be held at her $64 million estate in Montecito, Calif. (Tara II, it's called.)
That's going well: It was apparently so in demand among Democrats that tickets were restricted to the 250 members of Mr. Obama's national finance committee. Each got seven of the coveted $2,300 tickets to sell to friends who want to give the primary-season limit to Mr. Obama -- or who just want to get a look at the talk-show queen's 23,000-square-foot Georgian style mansion, or stroll the 42 acres of ponds, orchards and rustic outbuildings.
But the millions of dollars the event will raise for Mr. Obama is not the most interesting thing Ms. Winfrey has to offer his campaign.
"My money isn't going to make any difference," Ms. Winfrey told Larry King in May. "My value to him, my support of him is probably worth more than any check that I could write."
And, though she told her interviewer that no, she wouldn't be running for office herself, she did admit that with this campaign she was expanding her role in politics.
So, can Ms. Winfrey expand her kingmaking into politics?
"I think this is a celebrity endorsement," said Martin Kaplan, a research professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and erstwhile White House speechwriter.
Of course she can make people like him. But can she get people to vote for him?
"Most research," Mr. Kaplan said, "says, 'No.'"
But that's just the kind of research many political insiders are eager to see put to the test.
After all, she has gone where no other celebrity has gone. She has, in one category after another -- from the publishing industry to the magazine industry to the charity circuit to Broadway to Hollywood -- made herself a kingmaker with her (literally) trademarked brand of direct marketing.
It's something the Obama campaign is aware of.
"I think Oprah is one of those people that transcends race and class," said Robert Gibbs, the communications director for the Obama campaign, when this reporter caught up with him over the weekend in Chicago. "It's people from all walks of life who see some segment of themselves in her."
"It's one of those endorsements that speaks to so many people," he added. "I think she has proved her marketing ability beyond almost any other person that is in public life to some degree, and obviously we're hopeful that just a little bit of that rubs off on us."
"There are celebrities, and then there is Oprah Winfrey," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "I always kid that your average political endorsement is worth the vote of the endorser and -- about half the time -- the endorser's spouse. That's it. Nobody cares. We kind of revolt against that as a people. But Oprah is different."
"We don't know if she gets people to vote," said pollster John Zogby. "But we do know that she gets people to buy books. We do know that she gets people to give to charities. And we do know that there are people, particularly women, who listen to and hang on her words. Translating that into votes, that's kind of un-chartered waters, but she has a good track record."
The theory goes that Oprah Winfrey standing behind Barack Obama at a podium is not the same as, say, Ben Affleck standing behind John Kerry or Danny Glover standing behind John Edwards because she has consistently proven an ability to sell other people's stuff -- and to get people not only to adopt positive opinions about her friends' work, but to power-off the remote, get up off the couch, and go out to spend money at her bidding.
Voting is Appealing! You Should Try It!
How does she do that?
Jonathan Galassi, editor of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has now presided over three books picked for Oprah Winfrey's Book Club -- most recently?Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Eli Wiesel's Night and (infamously) Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.
"With Wiesel, she actually went to Auschwitz with him," Mr. Galassi said. "She puts a lot into it. The Today Show picks are a lot more casual -- they hold up the book and they say, 'this is a great book.'"
Sort of like Steven Spielberg holding up a candidate and saying, "This is a great candidate."
According to Kathleen Rooney, who wrote a 200-page book-length study of the Book Club in 2005, this level of engagement is motivated by Ms. Winfrey's admiration for certain authors, and her desire to be friends with them. (Ms. Rooney also currently works as an aide in the office of Senator Dick Durbin.)
The rapport Ms. Winfrey has with these authors when she interviews them, Ms. Rooney said, translates in turn into a similarly gentle, familiar rapport with her audience.
"She doesn't make reading seem like brussels sprouts, like 'these are good for you,'" Ms. Rooney said. "She says, 'you should do this because it's fun, because it'll broaden your horizons, because you'll enjoy it."
Speaking from Chicago, Ms. Rooney predicted that Ms. Winfrey's compassionate approach will carry over to great effect as she starts devoting more of her attention to the 2008 election.
"She's not browbeating people as a lot of these voting campaigns will," Ms. Rooney said. "She's just saying, 'voting is appealing! You should try it, it's fun!' She's making it fun, in the same way that her enthusiasm infects everything about her show."
According to Martha Levin, currently the executive vice president and publisher at Simon & Schuster's Free Press imprint and formerly of Hyperion, this is Ms. Winfrey's greatest strength.
"My opinion," said Ms. Levin, "is that a lot of the book recommendations we get are from people whom general readers find intimidating. The way Oprah makes herself not intimidating makes her book recommendations more accessible. Critics and professors seem more educated, further away."
Oprah, by contrast, is approachable, and some, like Ms. Rooney, believe that will carry over as she turns her attention to the election. "Her choice to throw her support behind Obama," Ms. Rooney said, "is very similar to her choice to support certain books. It's not calculating, it's not manipulative."
Mr. Obama and Ms. Winfrey's camps remain tight-lipped about how the budding synergy the consultants lustily anticipate -- you make me important in politics, I'll get you votes! -- will actually play out in Ms. Winfrey's media empire this fall.
And there are skeptics. Martin Kaplan, for one, maintains that there is a fundamental difference between heeding someone's advice at the book store versus at the voting booth.
"A book is an extension of the Oprah experience: we're going to do this together with our girlfriends," said Mr. Kaplan. "I think even in an age where entertainment slops over into every other realm, people do distinguish a vote from an entertainment or commodity purchase."
And indeed, the slopping-over of entertainment into politics is not always popular. Writing on Politico.com, Variety managing editor at large Ted Johnson warned that Ms. Winfrey's support "could create a backlash if she treats his campaign like her book club." Mr. Johnson quoted an undecided Iowa voter as saying that the Oprah endorsement may in fact turn her against Mr. Obama.
"In Middle America, the South, and some other places, when celebrities insert themselves into politics too much there's a bit of a backlash," said Mr. Schmeltzer, a New York-based political consultant. "But I don't think you get that with Oprah Winfrey. The whole country thinks so positively of her. And the fact that she hasn't inserted herself into politics, the same way that, say, Barbra Streisand has, this first endorsement carries a huge amount of weight."
So how, for instance, might Ms. Winfrey's support play out in the important middle-American primary state of Iowa?
"Endorsements are way overplayed," said Jim Spencer, a consultant with The Campaign Network who has worked on Democratic presidential races since 1980. "I don't think you could name an election that was won on an endorsement."
But: "Barack is a bit of a phenomenon that is falling outside of the political process. Oprah Winfrey reinforces that appeal."
And once again, Ms. Winfrey's ability to make new demographics participate where they hadn't before could be useful to Mr. Obama.
He said about 100,000 households participate in pretty much every cycle.
"The way people have won recently -- John Kerry being the most notable example, is that he went outside the pool of normal voters and went after veterans, and he got people who had never attended the caucus before to attend the caucus.
"I would guess Barack is going outside of the pool," he said.
In Iowa, Oprah would make "a gigantic difference," said Gordon Fischer, who was chair of the Iowa Democratic Party from 2002 to 2004.
"Typically some of [her viewers] would [vote in a primary] and some of them wouldn't, and it sort of remains to be seen, but she's the kind of person who can reach lots and lots of people and tell them to go out and vote."