Oprah becomes test of what an endorsement means

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.

In 1996, Dole's long list of endorsements from GOP governors "broke his fall" after the front-runner lost the New Hampshire primary to Pat Buchanan, says former Dole campaign spokesman Nelson Warfield.

"It's that little extra ingredient that sometimes makes the difference, and that's why we all crave these endorsements," says New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D'Allessandro, a Democrat who has met with endorsement-seeking candidates for more than 30 years.

Delivering foot soldiers

Few endorsers are as famous or rich as Winfrey. Most are from the political world, sought after for their organizing abilities, political machines or credibility.

"A simple press conference doesn't do a whole lot," says Jim Jordan, a strategist for Democrat Chris Dodd, who got the backing of the International Association of Fire Fighters, but barely registers in national polls. "Endorsements that deliver bodies to work, that deliver infrastructure or fundraising can make a big difference."

Union endorsements, which primarily go to Democrats, provide campaigns with money and foot soldiers. John Edwards, third behind Clinton and Obama in national polls, won the backing of the 1.2 million-member United Steelworkers union. He couldn't get the nod from the national Service Employees International Union, which hasn't endorsed anyone, but Edwards won the backing of 10 of its state boards, representing more than 1 million members.

In early primary states, coveted endorsements also come from local officeholders. "The closer you are to the local level of endorsements, the more they matter," says Larry Rasky, a strategist for Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, who claims the most endorsements from Iowa state legislators. "They go door-to-door in their districts. They work it hard."

A steady drumbeat of endorsements is designed to make a candidate's nomination seem inevitable: The Clinton campaign announces an endorsement almost every day. But that can backfire, says Contarino, who worked for Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign. "We had every endorsement in the book, and in many ways that ended up feeding a backlash against us as the establishment candidate," he says. "That's dangerous because voters don't like to be told how to vote."

Money and reputations

Endorsements also can lend credibility to a candidate on certain issues. Republican John McCain, a former Vietnam POW who is basing his appeal to voters on his military and national security credentials, is backed by four former secretaries of State including Henry Kissinger, as well as several retired generals in Iowa.

Clinton, trying to convince voters she'll end the Iraq war, won the backing of former senator George McGovern, who ran for president on an anti-war platform in 1972. Romney, seeking to allay worries of Christian conservatives about his Mormon faith, won an endorsement from Bob Jones III, chancellor of fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University in South Carolina.

Usually, money is as far as a celebrity endorsement goes. "Celebrities are great. Movie mogul Steven Spielberg raised $1.5 million for Obama at a Hollywood fundraiser in February, then raised $1 million for Clinton after he endorsed her in June.

"I would not make the argument that an endorsement (by a celebrity) in and of itself translates into votes," says Andy Spahn, a Hollywood political consultant whose clients include Spielberg. But the money they raise, "if well spent, should translate that into support."

The Oprah effect

But what about a celebrity who talks to 49 million people a week? Winfrey — who declined requests for an interview — stars in the top-rated daytime talk show in television, publishes a monthly magazine and has a weekly radio show. When she suggested that her viewers read an 800-page Russian classic, as she did in 2004, Anna Karenina became a best seller.

"She's unbelievably influential," says Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group, a programming consultant for TV stations. "Whether she ultimately has political influence or whether she chooses to use that platform is another issue."

After mentioning her support of Obama on CNN last year, Winfrey endorsed him in an interview with Larry King in May. Winfrey has had candidates on her show, but had never endorsed one, she said. "I didn't know anybody well enough to be able to say, 'I believe in this person,' " she said.

In 2004, another superstar jumped into politics: Rocker Bruce Springsteen did a huge get-out-the-vote campaign for Kerry, including a concert in Cleveland days before voters cast ballots. Kerry lost Ohio and the election.

But Winfrey's immense power with audiences means her ability to move voters can't be discounted, strategists say. She "has reach like no one else in the world — to women, which translates to the dinner table and the pillow talk," Reed says. "If she chose to go on the road on a campaign day with Obama, it would be a huge circus."

Winfrey has said she wants to have an influence on Obama's campaign beyond fundraising. "My support of him is probably worth more than any check that I could write," she said on CNN in May. She did write a $2,300 check last month.

Winfrey could host Obama on her show again, write about him in her magazine, make ads and, of course, campaign for him. Obama spokesman Bill Burton says she's promised to be "helpful," but no events have been scheduled.

The TV host's most loyal fans are just the people Obama is fighting to woo away from Clinton. Polls show Clinton has more support from women than Obama does, and Winfrey's audience is largely middle-class women ages 24-54. Winfrey also could help Obama among African-American voters, more of whom favor Clinton in polls even though he is widely viewed as the most viable black contender for president in U.S. history.

Steve Ross, a professor at the University of Southern California who is writing a book about celebrity endorsements, says Winfrey could have a measurable effect. "Her reputation as an activist and a serious, thoughtful person is much greater than any other movie star," he says.

Winfrey's influence also might be great enough to get people who usually don't vote — 36% of the 2004 electorate — to the polls, he says. "There's probably nobody with that potential greater than Oprah," Ross says. If she increased turnout by just 1 percentage point, "1% of an increased vote in key states could swing an election. That's why Oprah's endorsement is different."

Could Winfrey be a nationwide precinct captain, herding voters in the early nominating contests? Obama's opponents, busily wooing Iowa county chairmen, reluctantly concede the point: Oprah is indeed different.

Rasky, Biden's strategist, questions whether a celebrity has what it really takes to win votes. "I'd like to see her going door-to-door in Mason City (Iowa) in January," he says skeptically. "There's no history of celebrity endorsements meaning much. But I'm certainly not going to dismiss Oprah."