Oprah and Obama: Will her endorsement put him over the top?

November 30, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

Does Oprah Winfrey's endorsement help Sen. Barack Obama? She doesn't hurt.

The question seems to be on everyone's lips. Mr. Obama's campaign announced Monday that Ms. Winfrey will join the presidential hopeful next month in the important lead-off states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

I doubt that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, was thrilled to hear that news. The conventional wisdom holds that celebrity endorsements don't mean much, if anything. But, hey, this is Oprah!

Ms. Winfrey and Mrs. Clinton are very popular with women and African-Americans. Mr. Obama, judging by the polls, needs to win more support from both groups. If Ms. Winfrey can help Mr. Obama build his female support without damaging his support from the guys, she could be as valuable an asset to Mr. Obama on the campaign stump as Bill Clinton has been for the former first lady.

That observation was supported Tuesday in a national poll of likely African-American voters. Like other national polls, it shows that among black voters, Mrs. Clinton is viewed most favorably and Mr. Obama is running a close second.

Mrs. Clinton's lead is attributed mostly to her strong support from women. The AARP-sponsored poll was conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank. Mrs. Clinton received favorable approval ratings from 86 percent of the women in the poll, but only 78 percent of the men. Mr. Obama was approved equally by both sexes.

That's the story in South Carolina polls. Mrs. Clinton has received stronger support from black voters than Mr. Obama in that state, thanks again to black women. Since about half of the state's Democratic voters are black and its primary closely follows Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Obama's chances could hinge on Ms. Winfrey's ability to help him close that gender gap.

A Pew Research Center poll in September found that most Americans claimed endorsements have no impact on their vote, yet most also thought Ms. Winfrey's endorsement would help Mr. Obama. Also interesting in the Pew poll were the groups of voters who said they were most likely to listen to Ms. Winfrey: women, African-Americans and people ages 18 to 29.

It's not hard to believe Ms. Winfrey could serve as an important change agent to help put Mr. Obama over the top. When she endorses, people listen. She has proved her powers of persuasion with books; her book club has made best-sellers out of little-known authors.

Celebrity endorsements usually don't matter much because the sorts of people who are most likely to be influenced by celebrities tend to be lazy voters. They're not very committed. But if Ms. Winfrey can move Americans to go to bookstores, she might well be able to move a few to vote.

On the question of whether Mr. Obama risks trivializing the political process, I think Ms. Winfrey is taking the bigger risk. It doesn't hurt Mr. Obama to pal around with an entertainment icon who has Ms. Winfrey's formidable crossover appeal. It is Ms. Winfrey who must dance delicately above the turbulent waters of our country's bitterly polarized politics.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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