Oprah 2020? A Rosy Start Would Quickly Give Way to the Rigors of Running a Campaign

Oprah Winfrey Golden Globes
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Oprah Winfrey hasn’t even said that she is considering running for president, but short of her putting an “It Won’t Be Me” cover on O, The Oprah Magazine, it’s likely that the media speculation will be a perpetual 2020 storyline.

Along with the boosterism of Oprah for President, and the thought that she could even borrow Barack Obama’s campaign logo, is a whole counter reaction of naysayers.

President Trump predicted that he would beat her (even though a new poll says she leads), and his press secretary vaguely said that she disagrees with Winfrey on some issues, while some columnists have weighed in with commentary on the celebrity-frication of the White House, or, in the case of some rightward detractors, by trying to link Winfrey to Harvey Weinstein.

Those who have run campaigns, however, say that as much as Winfrey, were she to run, would get a huge advantage in the form of name recognition, there are also the mechanics and stark realities of a presidential contest.

“A candidate surrenders control over his or her life and subjugates everything to the voracious needs of the campaign,” David Axelrod, chief strategist for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, wrote on CNN.com. “Every past action and statement dating back to childhood is re-evaluated through a political lens. And perhaps most dauntingly for a candidate like Oprah, rather than choosing your own topics, the topics are foisted on you — often by opponents or mischievous reporters baiting a trap.”

Mike Murphy, who was chief strategist to another celebrity candidate — Arnold Schwarzenegger in his successful 2003 run for California governor — praised Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech and said that she would come in the race with significant advantages.

“The truth is that under the new rules, which aren’t even that new, she is very media savvy, she knows how to communicate her message and she is rich,” Murphy said. “That puts her in the hunt as a credible presidential candidate.”

But she’s also largely untested when it comes to actually mounting a campaign. The fun part, he said, is what called the “invisible primary,” where a candidate does “some big flashy things and lets demand and speculation build.”

“If she actually does it, then she leaves the celebrity bubble where she controls her own content,” he said. The media will quickly examine what it means and what people say about her, then go into a period of scrutiny, of everything from the types of guests she had on her talk show to the way that she ran her production company, Harpo.

Finally, as the campaign gets up and running, there is “the trivia of the campaign that the press obsesses” over, Murphy said. From the media, “there is no ‘good’ question. It is all criticism. It is always a negative premise. Celebrities are not used to that.”

Schwarzenegger had to adjust to it when he first ran, but he also had the experience of having led an after-school initiative campaign in the state. His then-wife, Maria Shriver, who is a friend of Winfrey’s, also came from a political family, and she could be an asset to her should she get in the race, Murphy said.

Murphy said that Winfrey also would have to make very important and even critical decisions early when it comes to assembling a campaign team, including strategists and press spokespeople, along with fundraising if she does not self-finance her entire campaign. “Turning it into a political machine is a tremendous amount of work,” he said. If she gets to the point where she seriously looks at running, she also may have to decide whether she’d be involved in any way in this year’s midterm elections, he noted.

Robert Shrum, senior adviser to John Kerry in 2004 and now professor of political science at USC, said that Winfrey “would have to put together a very good campaign organization,” along with finding staff with expertise in organizing for the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

“What she will have to do it decide that she wants to go through the rigor of the campaign,” he said. An early test would be a presidential primary debate, where she would be on stage with eight to 10 other candidates, and maybe more. That requires a different skill set than hosting a talk show, he noted.

He, too, says that Winfrey would have to decide that she is willing to endure the scrutiny. That includes releasing her tax returns, he said, as he doubts that Democrats would nominate a candidate who declined to do that.

“I assume there is nothing wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with being very wealthy,” he said. “But she would just have to decide those parts of her life which have been private, she is now going to share with the public.”

She also would have to create an economic message that speaks to the concerns of average Americans, he said.

“I would not write it off,” Shrum said, noting that she already has proven herself to being a gifted speaker. “I would just say that she would have to decide that the considerable challenges and sacrifices are worth it. It has to be more than an intriguing idea. It has to be something you really, really want to do, because you will need that to propel you from day to day.”

Winfrey has shown a knack for capturing the zeitgeist of the American public, as was reflected in her decision to jump into the political fray and endorse Obama in his 2008 campaign. That, too, will be essential if she does really weigh the bid. A year from now, when the presidential contest will be revving up, Democrats and the public at large may favor Washington experience to counter Trump. Or they may just be looking for another celebrity political novice, albeit someone who speaks in the tone of a daily meditation rather than a daily drama.