Study shows talkshow host is a major influence

There’s an answer to the lingering question of whether Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama translated to the ballot box: It’s 1,015,559.

The seven-figure sum is the number of votes credited to Winfrey’s nod by two U. of Maryland economics researchers, Craig Garthwaite and Tim Moore, who last week unveiled preliminary results of a study that relies on mathematical models to determine the talkshow host’s influence on this year’s presidential election.

The cable-fed punditry was never able to resolve the question of whether Oprah’s endorsement mattered. Now her involvement and the entire issue of celeb endorsements have moved to a whole new platform of debate: the world of academia.

Full of complicated formulas that go way over the heads most journalists, Garthwaite and Moore’s 58-page report comes to simple conclusions: that Oprah’s involvement increased Obama’s vote, his campaign contributions, even the overall level of voter participation. The million-plus votes far exceeds the margin between Obama and Clinton at the end of primary season. Better put, and to use a bit of hyperbole, Obama plus Oprah equals nomination.

That flies in the face of most politicos I’ve talked with, who pooh-pooh the idea that celebrity endorsements, Oprah’s included, matter. The consensus is that such endorsements may translate into extra attention, but certainly not electoral strength. What’s more, polling on the Oprah effect was inconclusive at best, even though she was cited as the celeb most able to move books and causes with a single nod on her weekday talkshow.

Winfrey herself mocked the speculation about her influence when she stepped onto the stage in Des Moines, Iowa, for her first appearance stumping for Obama in December.

“Despite all the talk and speculation and the hype, I understand the difference between a book club and a free refrigerator,” she told some 18,000 people, wryly adding, “That was a nice refrigerator — I understand the difference between that, and this critical moment in our nation’s history.”

Another group of researchers, from U. of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, published their own Oprah study last week. It found that her endorsement made voters see Obama as more viable — and thus they were more likely to cast their ballot for him.

“These findings suggest that research on celebrity endorsements should consider not only effects on candidate support but also subtler effects, such as those on viability assessments,” the authors write in the abstract.

In other words, it is going to take much more science to get the full measure of such celebrity political plays as Huck-Chuck or the Limbaugh effect or, heaven forbid, Paris Hilton’s entree into presidential politics.

With their complex formulas, Garthwaite and Moore give Oprah’s case a spirited examination. In very simplistic terms, their study, launched in January, relied on geographic differences in subscriptions to O, Oprah Magazine and Oprah’s Book Club sales and then correlated them to precinct-level county vote totals.

Garthwaite and Moore took into account “differences in county populations’ race, age, sex, marital status, educational attainment, family size, income, poverty status, home ownership, house prices, labor force participation, unemployment, veteran status and urban/rural mix.” As exact as their vote total is, the economists note that it is still an estimate. And the study did not address whether Winfrey’s endorsement had a detrimental impact on her own popularity, as has been speculated.

There are also some doubts about the research methods. One commenter on Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog, which first linked to the report, called it an instance of “comparing apples and oranges.” Others, naturally, question the researchers’ past political affiliations, as if their study was part of a GOP effort to highlight Obama’s prowess at capturing celebrity stardust.

Angela Jamison, a sociology researcher at UCLA, has doubts about using O magazine as a barometer, but she’s not surprised by the findings. The co-author, with Matthew Baum, of “The Oprah Effect: How Soft News Helps Inattentive Citizens Vote Consistently,” Jamison believes that Winfrey, unique in having large audiences in different media, “does have a significant effect on some voters.”

“Oprah’s timing was quite genius,” Jamison says. “My guess is she came out at the moment when her capacity to win support to Obama was at a zenith.”

There has yet to be an announcement about whether Winfrey will have a role at the Democratic National Convention. But such influence, Jamison and other researchers caution, may not extend into the general election anyway. As the thinking goes in Garthwaite and Moore’s study, “celebrities provide information about a candidates’ personal characteristics” — not issues.

“In the case of a general election, voters are more concerned with policy positions, and therefore it is unclear how much influence a celebrity endorsement may have,” they write.

Policy positions?

They may have spoken too soon. In Hilton’s web video response to McCain’s “Celeb” campaign ad, which tried to tie her fame to Obama’s, Hilton spoofed her own image while expounding on energy policy.

Sure enough, it was followed by a wave of essays from high-minded writers on the relative merits of her plan. The scholarly class just couldn’t resist.

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