Oprah Winfrey can get people to read Tolstoy, sell millions of magazines and turn a mail-order canvas bag into a hot item just by naming it one of her favorite things.
To get Americans to vote for her favorite presidential candidate, Democrat Barack Obama, though, she'll have to twice prove conventional wisdom wrong: once with voters who repeatedly say endorsements don't make a big difference, and once with politicos who say they can — but that those by celebrities usually don't matter.
Winfrey has raised $3 million for Obama, the Illinois senator who draws big crowds and plenty of money but is stuck behind Hillary Rodham Clinton in Democratic polls. Winfrey also may campaign for Obama. The more she does, the more her first venture into presidential politics will test the limits of what a personal endorsement can — or can't — do.
Every White House contender is scrambling for endorsements, trying to capitalize on the attention, money and organized support that can result. But endorsements aren't votes, as Howard Dean learned painfully in 2004. Dean lost Iowa's Democratic caucuses despite getting nods from two big unions; Sen. Tom Harkin; and the party's previous nominee, Al Gore.
"Even a very popular politician can't really translate his or her support into support for you," says Dave Contarino, campaign manager for Bill Richardson. "This is a very personal and profound decision, (determining) the presidency of the United States, and endorsements don't really matter."
More than six in 10 adults say endorsements aren't that important in deciding whom they'll support for president, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. Just 8% of adults in the poll, taken Oct. 12-14, said Winfrey's backing made them more likely to support Obama. In fact, 10% said it made them less likely to support the senator.
The Pew Center for the People and the Press surveys voters on endorsements each election year and the results show that famous people don't carry weight politically, says center director Andy Kohut. "There are some things that people will take their cues from (celebrities) and other things they won't," he says. "If Bill Gates suggested something to me about technology or the future of the American economy, yes, very interesting. But a choice between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani? I'm not so sure."
Even so, campaigns make a point of trying to rack up endorsements. The Clinton campaign lists nearly 200 on its website. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, stands side by side at a fundraiser with his buddy Yogi Berra, the Yankees baseball great. The endorsement list from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's campaign is more than 340 names long.
"Endorsements give credibility to a campaign, they help create momentum," says Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole's campaign in 1996. "They're a tactic to be used early on."
Sometimes they do seem to provide a critical lift. Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who's backing Clinton this year, says a big reason that Sen. John Kerry beat Dean for the Democratic nomination in 2004 was the endorsement from his wife, Christie Vilsack, one week before the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses. (Tom Vilsack, then Iowa's governor, remained officially neutral.) Kerry surged in state polls, won Iowa and, eventually, the nomination.