Obama sees opportunity in Oprah’s optimism
NEW YORK » Call it the "O Factor." Oprah Winfrey picks a "favorite book" or a "favorite thing," and poof, it's a best-seller.
And now Winfrey's "favorite senator," Barack Obama, hopes the O Factor will work for him, too, as the talk-show host and media icon prepares to campaign for the presidential candidate in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
But can Winfrey's influence, vast as it is, extend to the political realm? That depends on whether celebrity endorsements, so courted and coveted in modern politics, really mean much at all in the end. But then again, how many celebrities have the reach and the power of Oprah Winfrey?
"Oprah's in a category of her own," says Todd Boyd, professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. "She's not a movie star. She's not a rock star. She's a brand. She's one of the few people in the world who can be identified only by one name."
And yet, with all that, you can't necessarily extrapolate to politics, says Boyd. "You could argue that she didn't get to be popular by being political. Politics has never been a big part of her persona. This is not a slam dunk."
Courting celebrities generally is a mixed bag, say political consultants who've been involved in the process. First, there's the negative perception of Hollywood in some parts as a place of wealthy liberals out of touch with real concerns. That's why George Clooney, for example, has kept his support for Obama out of the public realm for now.
"As far as openly campaigning, he thinks it hurts the candidate," says Clooney spokesman Stan Rosenfield. "You lose the heartland."
Then there's the fact that a campaign needs to be cautious. Because, as former political speechwriter Marty Kaplan puts it, "celebrities are always one racy joke or DUI away from an embarrassment."
"You do have to be careful," says Stephanie Cutter, who served as Kerry's communications director in the 2004 campaign. "Celebrities don't always provide a benefit. If you do an event with them, you own what they've produced."
On the other hand, she says, the right celebrities can build crowds to reach new voters, and give validation to a candidate.
In Winfrey's case, Cutter says, "Iowa caucus-goers, especially women, will likely come in droves to see Oprah. She appeals to a broad demographic. To the extent that she helps bring out new or undecided voters, she's helping Obama make a direct and personal appeal to them for their vote."
Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, a former Bill Clinton aide, says most celebrity endorsements have a "cotton candy effect" -- they taste great, then evaporate into thin air.
"If these endorsements really meant something, we'd be wrapping up a second Gore term right now, or a first Kerry term," said Lehane, referring to all the celebs who supported Democrats in the last two general elections.
Whether or not Winfrey ends up helping Obama, Boyd, the USC professor, suggests that she has little to lose with her loyal fan base. But if Obama were to get elected, he adds, Winfrey has a lot to gain.
"Oprah is very powerful," Boyd says. "Like most powerful people, she wants to demonstrate her power. She wants to be a kingmaker. If she can get a president elected, that's a big line on an already long resume."