By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
The Oprah-Obama '08 bumper sticker was meant to be only a lark, hawked on the Internet for $3.99 under the catchphrase "Just when you thought there was no hope for the Democratic Party . . ."
Turns out the sentiment, at least, may not be entirely fanciful.
Oprah Winfrey, the nation's wealthiest African American and host of an afternoon television program, endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in May. Now, she is in discussions with his advisers about playing a broader role in the campaign -- possibly as a surrogate on the stump or an outspoken advocate -- or simply bringing her branding magic to benefit his White House bid.
On Saturday, Winfrey will host her first-ever presidential fundraising affair on the grounds of the Promised Land, her 42-acre ocean- and mountain-view estate in Montecito, Calif. -- an event that is expected to raise more than $3 million for Obama's campaign.
Although no guests will be permitted to enter Winfrey's house, a few dozen VIPs will have special access to Winfrey.
The fundraiser may be only the start. The Winfrey and Obama machines have maintained silence on the exact nature of their talks over what her role will be, but the idea of her appearing in television ads and other appeals is very much in play. She offered during a recent interview with CNN's Larry King: "My money isn't going to make any difference. My value to him -- my support of him -- is probably worth more than any other check that I could write."
Winfrey met Obama and his wife, Michelle, on the Chicago social circuit before his 2004 Senate bid, and they have remained friendly since. It was two years ago, when the Obamas attended the white-tie Legends Ball at Winfrey's Montecito home, that Winfrey first broached the idea of doing something she had never done before -- hosting a political event.
"I was saying wouldn't this be a great place for a fundraising," Winfrey recalled in an interview rebroadcast on her Web site. "I said it jokingly."
Since then, Winfrey has had the Obamas as guests on her television show, featured them in her magazine and gushed about the senator's potential to change American politics in repeated public appearances.
"For me, this was the moment to step up," she said in a recent radio chat with friend Gayle King.
Historically, there's little evidence that celebrity endorsements have done much to draw voters to political candidates. In fact, there is some consensus among political strategists that while mega-stars might generate an occasional burst of media attention, they are often not worth the downside that a close association with Hollywood can create.
But several political analysts pondered the impact of a full-court press by Winfrey and said they believe her involvement could be different.
"When you think about Oprah's success in selling books, you can't laugh off the fact that she can sway many, many people," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "She has a very large following -- and we're talking about people who hang on her every word."
Among the weapons in Winfrey's arsenal: the television program that reaches 8.4 million viewers each weekday afternoon, according to the most recent Nielsen numbers. Her Web site reaches 2.3 unique viewers each month, "O, the Oprah Magazine," has a circulation of 2 million, she circulates a weekly newsletter to 420,000 fans and 360,000 people have subscribed to her Web site for daily "Oprah Alerts" by e-mail.
More than that, though, the Nielsen tracking data show that her most loyal viewers are women between 25 and 55 -- a group that also votes in large numbers in Democratic primaries. National Election Pool exit polling from 2004 showed that women older than 45 represented a third of the electorate in the Democratic primary contests in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.
How powerful can an association with Winfrey be? On Sept. 19, 2000, George W. Bush trailed Gore in the Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll by 10 percentage points, and struggled particularly with women voters. Then he sat down on Winfrey's couch. They talked about his decision to quit drinking, his love for his wife and daughters, his religious faith and the legacy of being a president's son.
The following week, the same poll showed Bush with a two-point advantage -- a statistical tie. News reports called it the "Oprah bounce."
Winfrey said in an audio Web chat last week that, this year, the Obamas will be her only political guests.
"It would be really disingenuous of me to be sitting up there interviewing other people . . . pretending to be objective," she said.
Winfrey's show is not subject to any "equal time" obligations, because Federal Communications Commission rules do not apply to news programs, interview shows and documentaries in which the candidate is not the sole focus.
Obama's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), will not be completely deprived of a daytime audience packed with potential women voters. She landed a slot on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" yesterday and will likely be back.
On Tuesday, former president Bill Clinton made an appearance on Oprah. But the talk show host made clear that Clinton had solicited the appearance himself, and they did not dwell long on politics, instead talking about his new book "Giving" and his global good works.
He said his wife had pointed out that she is 15 years older now during her campaign than he was when he ran. "I said, 'Well, nobody made you run, girl,' " Clinton said.
Oprah asked him what his title would be if his wife were to win.
"I don't know -- my Scottish friends say I should be called 'First Laddie,' " Clinton said. "It's the closest thing to 'First Lady.' " He added: "I'm not so worried about what I'm called as what I'm called upon to do."
The possibilities of Winfrey's fledgling partnership with Obama are immense but uncertain, said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American studies at Duke University. They really raise a single, pivotal question: Can Winfrey do for a political candidate what she did for books?
What Winfrey did for books is the stuff of marketing legend.
Between 1996 to 2002, titles recommended by "Oprah's Book Club" typically resulted in sales of more than a million copies, a staggering number considering that a typical novel might be judged a success with 20,000 sales. Winfrey disbanded the club in 2002, though she later reinstated it, drawing her loyalists to classic titles.
Susan Harrow, author of a book that advises commercial and charitable groups on how to land appearances on Winfrey's show, said she is convinced a Winfrey pitch will work on voters.
The reason, she said, is that her viewers are more than just a television audience. "They are followers."
"People trust her opinion, I think, even more than they trust their own," Harrow said.
Neal isn't as certain.
"She can deliver a constituency to the marketplace, no question," Neal said. "People feel very differently about spending their money than they do about casting a vote."
But the sway over people's money, at least, will be evident as cars snake up Pacific Coast Highway into Montecito, and vans shuttled the well-heeled donors from parking facilities to Winfrey's compound Saturday.
If it wasn't clear to her loyalists how big a step it was for her to offer up this mansion for a fundraiser, she hammered that point in her chat with King.
"To offer it, you're right," Winfrey said, "it's no small thing for me. . . . I'm really not a political person. I believe that he offers a fresh opportunity of hope for America. So that's why I'm in it. I probably won't ever be in it again."
Polling researcher Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.