CHICAGO Does Oprah Winfrey's endorsement help Sen. Barack Obama? She doesn't hurt.
The question seems to be on everyone's lips. Obama's campaign announced Monday that the Chicago-based Winfrey will join the presidential hopeful from her hometown next month in the important lead-off states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
I doubt that Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, was thrilled to hear that news. The conventional wisdom holds that celebrity endorsements don't mean much, if anything. But, hey, this is … Oprah!
We're talking about the queen of all media taking on the diva of Democratic politics.
Winfrey and Clinton are very popular with women and African Americans. Obama, judging by the polls, needs to win more support from both. If Winfrey can help Obama build his female support without damaging his support from the guys, she could be as valuable an asset to Obama on the campaign stump as Bill Clinton has been for the former first lady.
That observation was supported Tuesday, a day after Obama's Oprah announcement, in a new national poll of likely African American voters. Like other national polls, it shows Clinton viewed most favorably, largely because of her stronger support from women, and Obama running a close second.
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. Obama was approved equally by both sexes.
That's the story in South Carolina polls. The New York senator has received stronger support from black voters than 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, Obama's chances could swing on Oprah's ability help him close that gender gap.
The public seems divided in an interesting way over the impact of Oprah's blessing. A Pew Research Center poll in September found that most Americans claimed endorsements would have no impact on their vote, yet most also thought Winfrey's endorsement would help Obama's votes. In other words, "She won't influence me, but I bet she'll influence a lot of other people."
Also interesting in the Pew poll were the groups of voters who said they were most likely to listen to Winfrey: women, African Americans and young folks aged 18 to 29. Obama is already stronger among the under-30 crowd in the polls, although they're less than half as likely to vote as the over-55 folks who tend to favor Clinton. More troubling for Clinton is Oprah's appeal to blacks and women.
The Joint Center's poll also found that "commitment to change" was twice as important to black voters than "experience in public office." Even though they tended to favor Clinton, the "change-over-experience" theme could work for him down the road, depending on how he plays it.
It's not hard to believe Oprah could serve as an important change agent to help put Obama over the top. When she endorses, people listen. She's already proved her powers of persuasion with books. Her book club has made best-sellers out of little-known authors. She's made legions of viewers go out and purchase old classics instead of the CliffsNotes versions that some of us read when they were assigned to us back in high school.
Celebrity endorsements usually don't matter much because the sort of people who are most likely to be influenced also tend to be lazy voters. They're not very committed to one side or another. It's hard for campaigns to get them up off of their cozy couches to go out and stand in line on a winter's night to vote. But if Winfrey can move Americans to go to bookstores, she might well be able to move a few to vote.
On the question of whether Obama risks trivializing the political process, I think Oprah's taking a bigger risk. It doesn't hurt Obama to pal around with an entertainment icon who has Oprah's formidable crossover appeal. It is Oprah who must dance delicately above the turbulent waters of our country's bitterly polarized politics.
She says her support of Obama is personal, not partisan. I believe her. She has hosted guests of both parties on her shows with equal hospitality. I'm sure she will continue to do so. Still, I won't be holding my breath waiting for Mrs. Clinton to say "yes" again.