The Oprah Effect

090707sweet_cst_feed_20070 Will Oprah’s viewers mean votes?

If so, will we ever know?

The “Oprah effect” is the source of endless speculation as she prepares to host a fund-raiser at her sprawling Montecito estate on Saturday, a 42-acre piece of property that looks more like the National Mall than a star home. Stevie Wonder will reportedly provide the entertainment, with a host of guests including celebrities and Illinois bigwigs.

If she does a commercial for Obama or goes on the stump, as is being discussed, according to some sources, she could open her candidate’s campaign to a pool of otherwise politically inactive voters, the thinking goes, particularly women. That’s where Obama hopes to make inroads, with Hillary having a big advantage for obvious reasons.

Yet even if her magic touch — which has propelled books, charitable causes and business ventures into smash hits — seems to work on Obama, can it ever be proven. Here it gets a bit wonkish, but  voters will probably be more reluctant to admit that they are casting ballots based on Oprah’s cues. Rather, they are more likely to reach for other answers when being queried at exit polls.

“What people say in exit polls is often a ‘post-hoc’ rationalization,” says Matthew Baum, a UCLA professor and the author of “The Oprah Effect: How Soft News Helps Inattentive Citizens Vote Consistently.” “Is it really what caused you to make that decision?”

He does, however, say that laboratory research can be performed to at least get and idea on how they respond to “different plates of information.” In that regard, he believes that endorsements do matter.

“Endorsements are cues for people who don’t have a lot of time or pay a lot of attention to politics,” he says. He adds that although endorsement may not turn the tide, “we rely on ‘information shortcuts’ in every moment of our existence.”

94764086v4_240x240_front So in that sense, Oprah’s nod comes with great potential. “She is probably the most trusted person in the country,” Baum says. “Even in better days, she rated about George Bush in the polls.”

Some of Obama’s biggest supporters believe that even the mere fact that she is having a fund-raiser at her home, her first ever, will mean more than just the money that is raised.

“It is going to be one of the single most important political fund-raisers in all of history for a host of reasons,” says actor Hill Harper, a friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School who plans to attend. “There are going to be a lot of influential people there in different arenas, different circles. There are going to be many people there who aren’t Barack supporters yet. Once they hear the Senator in person, I think they will think about giving him their support.”

Nevertheless, there is the potential of overdoing it. After all, one reason for Oprah’s success may be that she has remained so non-partisan — she’s steered clear of blatant partisanship — and thus comes across as more thoughtful and fair than other personalities. Now she’s no longer above the political fray. She obviously is aware of this — and is cautious about when and where she pitches the Obama message. Her show has been free of Obamamania. Before he got in the race, it was thought to be planning to announce his candidacy on her show; that never happened. Speaking with Gayle King’s radio show recently, she said that because of the endorsement it would be “disingenuous” of her to have other candidates on her show. 

In fact, Winfrey goes to great lengths to stress that her endorsement is not a signal that she intends to become some kind of a political power broker.

“I am doing this because I feel this is the right thing to do at this time,” Winfrey told King. “I know that people will say you cannot be any more political than stepping into this. But I am doing this not because of my politics but because of my belief system. I really do believe in Barack Obama….I believe in what he stands for. I believe in his moral authority…. I believe in his value system. I believe that he is about creative a new kind of environment for everybody.”

So for her to drive home the Obama message too much has the danger of backfiring — perhaps hurting her more than Obama.

“Too much of a good thing is often not so good,” Baum says. “She has thrown all that caution to the wind by taking this step.”

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