For a short while last week, the possibility of an Oprah Winfrey presidential campaign dazzled and distracted Democrats. The first polls of a potential Trump-Winfrey election varied widely; most showed that Winfrey would defeat a president who has struggled to crack 40 percent in job approval, despite a growing economy.
But some polls of Democratic voters, as well as a survey conducted by a progressive campaign group, have found the party’s base to be skeptical about a celebrity swooping in to win the primary.
The first poll, released Wednesday by Morning Consult and Politico, found Winfrey trailing in hypothetical primary contests against former vice president Joe Biden (by 23 points) and against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (by nine points). Winfrey led Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) by just four points; she enjoyed a substantial, 21-point lead over only Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has the smallest national profile of the group.
The survey, conducted over the past week by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, found skepticism about a Winfrey run from a self-selected segment of the party’s base. Thirty thousand members of the PCCC — the group claims 1 million members overall — returned a questionnaire about the Oprah-for-president pitch, and just 25 percent of the members said that the media mogul should run; 39 percent said that they had positive feelings about Winfrey, but would look for another candidate.
The PCCC, which brands itself as representing “the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” found its members far more excited about the Massachusetts senator. (In 2011, the PCCC was one of the larger organizations working to draft Warren into her first political race.) Eighty-four percent of members said that they’d back Warren in a primary; just 11 percent chose Winfrey. In a direct contest with Sanders, the Vermont senator led Winfrey by 47 points. In a hypothetical three-way primary, Warren clocked in at 41 percent, Sanders at 35 percent and Winfrey at 7 percent.
None of these results is likely to bear on the actual 2020 primary. There’s no single national contest, and no chance of the race boiling down quickly to two or three candidates; at least two dozen Democrats have at least had conversations about what it would take to run. Polling two years ahead of the Iowa caucuses is not much use for the horse race; the few polls taken of the 2008 and 2016 primaries at similar points in the cycle found very little support for the eventual winners, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
But the PCCC survey was less about the horse race than about the motivations of the party’s base. Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech, and the subsequent political speculation, prompted a handful of articles about her actual politics — hard to pin down, but not particularly left-wing. Progressives, who (excepting a FISA vote this week) have won most of their arguments in a post-Clinton Democratic Party, wanted to see whether the base was more interested in policy than in dazzle. As far as the PCCC could tell, it was. Winfrey was more popular with Democrats outside the PCCC base, but not overwhelmingly so.
“It turns out the base wants someone else and general election voters are more willing to support someone like Warren, whose values they know and support,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green, referring to a separate national poll that the group paid for from Public Policy Polling. The first results from that survey found Warren enjoying a larger lead over Trump than Winfrey did.