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Can Oprah Deliver Her Fans to Obama?

By Steven Stark

Although the press covers them pantingly, endorsements often mean little -- if anything -- in presidential politics. The days when a public official could deliver a constituency have long since passed. Even labor unions, once rock-solid in their bloc-ability, have been unable lately to steer their members to a chosen candidate.

Sure, endorsers may help a candidate's fundraising efforts by granting access to their Rolodexes. And the support of a mayor can usually get a few senior citizens to the polls on Election Day. But that's about it.

Unless, of course, the endorser in question is Oprah Winfrey. If anyone is an exception to all the rules, it's Oprah.

From her still-popular TV talk show, to O magazine, to her book-club endorsements that regularly lift titles -- any titles -- to the lofty top slot, Oprah's influence on American culture is enormous. One leading television historian has called Oprah "the most celebrated and powerful black woman in US history." (Okay, it was me.) Life magazine has labeled her "America's most powerful woman." Forbes magazine went one step further, calling her the most influential person in the world. None is exaggerating.

In some polls, Oprah even ranks as the celebrity Americans believe to be most qualified to serve as president. Another recent survey from about.com ranked Oprah as the country's favorite entrepreneur, with nearly double the votes of that ne'er-do-well Bill Gates. And a 2003 VH1 poll named her the country's greatest pop-culture icon -- beating out, for example, Superman and Elvis. It's not just that everything she touches turns to gold; when Oprah speaks, America listens. When she tells them to buy something, they do.

So it was big news this past week when Oprah reiterated her support for Barack Obama, whom she had previously called "her favorite guy." She'll host a fundraiser in September. And after that? How heavily she campaigns for him could well determine the course of the Democratic nomination.

Obama's better half

Oprah's endorsement of Obama isn't only important for the sheer power attached to her name. With an overwhelmingly female audience -- comprised especially of lower- to middle-class women -- she's the cultural leader of Hillary Clinton's base. So far much of that demographic has seemed inclined to support Hillary; Oprah could help swing it the other way. Plus, she has tremendous appeal in the black community, which -- though it's still early -- has only half-heartedly flocked to Obama's camp. When, for example, it came time in 2005 for politicians and celebrities to deliver eulogies at Rosa Parks's memorial service in Washington, DC, you can guess whose speech stole the show.

It's that cross-cultural appeal, and facility in any situation, that Obama will benefit from by having the country's top leading lady on his side. Her gregarious nature, street sass ("Hey, girl!"), and TV ministry of empathy have allowed her to walk the narrow line between the races, and to put together a biracial coalition of the sort Obama wouldn't mind electorally emulating.

As such, she might be able to do for Obama what Elizabeth Edwards has been trying to do for her husband: provide a more accessible avenue for the candidate's message, in a "non-political" forum (think: the Living section of newspapers), which candidates often crave.

It was the Clintons, way back in 1992, who promised voters a two-for-one couple. But this is the first campaign where the idea has really taken off. It would be impossible, for instance, to imagine Hillary's candidacy going very far without the considerable backing of her husband, in everything from fundraising to the reassurance he provides (to some) as a reliable figure in a Clinton White House redux. And it may actually be an understatement to say that Elizabeth Edwards has co-billing with her husband, given the considerable publicity she has generated this past month through campaign commercials, confrontations with Ann Coulter, attacks on Hillary, and a wonderful and well-deserved profile on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Which makes it all the more obvious that Obama, surrounded by political power couples, is essentially standing on his own. (His wife, Michelle, though an accomplished lawyer, isn't a celebrity -- nor should she be.)

But if Oprah stays in the fray, she could help even things out on that front. No, she isn't related to Obama, but that may give her endorsement more credibility, in the eyes of some. And she may be so large a cultural force that her occasional presence on the campaign scene could outweigh that of Bill or Elizabeth.

The FCC "equal time" rule prevents Oprah from doing much for Obama on her television program. (In a related development, fans of Law and Order should be prepared to say goodbye to many of that show's re-runs when Fred Thompson, a/k/a Arthur Branch, announces his candidacy, since that same ruling prevents re-airing shows that feature the soon-to-be candidate.) But that's of little importance. Oprah is news whatever she says, wherever she says it. And if she keeps beating the drum for Obama, it could well spell trouble for the other Democrats.

Boston Phoenix


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