Oprah Winfrey Presents: Barack Obama

In the world of retail, there's star power, there's celebrity endorsement and then there's Oprah Winfrey. Her Midas touch saves names from anonymity, best sellers from dusty storerooms and favorite things from Internet obscurity.

But as Winfrey has long chosen abstinence in the arena of political endorsements and campaign-trail theater, her capital remains untested. Until now.

In May, Winfrey affirmed her support for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential candidacy to Larry King, describing Obama's leadership as "worth me going out on a limb for." In September, the media titan feted Obama at a California fundraiser, raking in more than $3 million for the Illinois senator's White House bid.

And this weekend, Winfrey hits the trail with the Democratic candidate, making appearances alongside Obama in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Though Winfrey made a third-quarter contribution to Obama's primary bid, she acknowledged that because of contribution limits, "my money isn't going to make any difference to him. I think that my value to him, my support of him, is probably worth more than a check."


Cashing In on 'The Oprah Effect'

Political science professor Matt Baum, who published a research paper "The Oprah Effect" for a 2006 study, described Winfrey as a "nonpartisan, above-the-fray, trusted source for women" who politically "has been difficult to pigeonhole," which Baum said, "furthers her ability to come into it now."

Acknowledging the power of Winfrey's glitter, Baum believes that ultimately she'll have little effect on whether or not Obama can harness the numbers necessary to seize the Democratic presidential nomination.

"By virtue of having endorsed Obama, she's no longer above the fray -- she's in the fray," said Baum, a decision he said could erode Winfrey's capital, since she probably has "more credibility than any other celebrity that lives."

Still, an October poll conducted by USA Today/Gallup showed that more than six in 10 adults said endorsements aren't that important in their support for a candidate. Only 8 percent said Winfrey's backing made them more likely to support Obama; 10 percent said it made them less likely to support the Illinois senator.

But it's not just the endorsement, it's the momentum that comes with it.

Caroline Tolbert, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said in Iowa "having a celebrity endorser may or may not make much of a difference because the caucuses are fought on the ground."

There is still an Oprah factor. Mark Sawyer, the director of UCLA's Center for Race, Ethnicity and Politics, believes a spot on Winfrey's daytime couch played a role in the current president's 2000 victory and Arnold Schwarzenegger's California gubernatorial win in 2003.

"Both of those candidates had real difficulty on policy issues and had issues with women voters," Sawyer said. The "'are-you-a-nice-guy-to-talk-to' aspect of Oprah" made both Bush and Schwarzenegger more approachable candidates, said Sawyer.

Race and the Race

Viewer comfort is key when considering Winfrey's No. 1 daytime talk show ratings and status in American pop culture. It lends to the notion that she has, perhaps, transcended race to the 50-some million viewers she amasses every week. Could her presence on the trail help Obama do the same?

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