BACK in 1992, the Bush White House deemed Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show insufficiently serious for the incumbent president to visit. But in the intervening years, Ms. Winfrey’s couch, along with the easy chairs on other chat shows, became so attractive to candidates that the political world is now wondering whether Ms. Winfrey might actually hold the Democratic nomination in her hands.
For the first time, the queen of daytime talk has endorsed a presidential candidate, bestowing her blessing on Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat. And next weekend, she takes to the hustings, appearing with him and his wife, Michelle, at campaign events in Des Moines; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Manchester, N.H.; and Columbia, S.C.
Her arrival on the trail promises to be a glitzy, high-energy political moment — perhaps even more anticipated than the unprecedented moment last summer when a former president, Bill Clinton, first stepped out to campaign with his candidate wife, Senator Hillary Clinton.
While the moment is political, it will test whether Ms. Winfrey’s life philosophy — be true to yourself! be grateful every day! transform your life! help others! stay positive! — translates to the political arena. Does her formula work beyond the Oprah bubble? Can she translate her powers of suggestion — for a book, a hairstyle, an attitude toward life — into votes?
Certainly, on a meta-level, there is a harmony between Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Obama, both in outlook and promise. They both speak of the politics of hope. They speak of change and spiritual renewal. Ms. Winfrey’s philosophy carries the promise of self-improvement, and her endorsement, by extension, could carry the promise of nation-improvement.
“Obama is a post-polarization candidate and Oprah is a post-polarization celebrity,” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers. “Whereas people like Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda make you think of taking to the barricades, with Oprah it’s conciliation and brotherhood.” (Ms. Streisand endorsed Mrs. Clinton last week.)
There’s an extra bit of fortuitous timing for Mr. Obama. The enormously popular Ms. Winfrey is set to appear just as the race between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton is tightening.
“All of us feel a sense of momentum, and Oprah adds to that,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist.
Ms. Winfrey is adored by millions of women who might just as easily support Mrs. Clinton. In fact, if they voted in the 1990s, they probably voted for Mr. Clinton.
Of Ms. Winfrey’s daytime audience of 8.6 million viewers, 75 percent are women. More than half are older than 50, 44 percent make less than $40,000 a year and about 25 percent have no more than a high school diploma, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Many of these viewers fit the profile of a Clinton supporter, which is one reason Ms. Winfrey may be valuable to Mr. Obama.
Ms. Winfrey has already hinted at how she will court them.
“I believe in this person,” she told Larry King in May as she discussed her endorsement.
“I know him well enough to believe in his moral authority,” she told The Hollywood Reporter last week.
Such statements, at once simple and grandiose, break down the mystery of endorsement to a basic, Amazon.com-like formula: If Oprah likes Barack and the audience likes Oprah, then the audience will also like Barack.
It has worked with Ms. Winfrey’s book club. Oprah likes “Anna Karenina” and the audience likes Oprah, so the audience rushes out to buy Anna K. In 2004, when she recommended the 130-plus-year-old tome, it shot to the top of the best-seller list in one week.
In politics, it doesn’t usually work that way. William H. Gray III, a former Democratic congressman from Philadelphia and former president of the United Negro College Fund, recalled last week that during his first race for Congress in the 1970s, his opponent had brought in Muhammad Ali.
“There was no one bigger in the black community,” he said. Still, Mr. Gray won.
“Oprah may be shocked in this first foray into the political waters that her personal popularity doesn’t rub off on Obama,” said Mr. Gray, who is supporting Mrs. Clinton. Endorsements can bring money and news media visibility, he said, “but Oprah can’t turn Obama into Oprah.”
But this is not just an endorsement. “She’s a pastoral figure,” Mr. Baker of Rutgers said. “She’s soothing. Her message will be largely nonideological although clearly her political preferences are liberal. But the causes she espouses are ecumenical. They soothe people and make them feel virtuous.”
Steven J. Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California, who is writing a book about how movie stars shaped American politics, said that if he were running for president and could have one celebrity endorse him, it would be Ms. Winfrey, who he said has become a role model for how to combine the personal and the political.
“She’s pitching Obama as part of her self-improvement campaign, saying, essentially, that he will improve your life and improve the nation,” he said.
With all the buildup of Ms. Winfrey’s transformational abilities, the Obama campaign is now lowering expectations of exactly what she can do. At the least, she may spur a second look at Mr. Obama by those who had written him off only to become discouraged with Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Axelrod, the Obama strategist, is quick to say that the campaign does not expect her to secure votes on her own.
“Barack has said that this is not like Oprah’s book club,” he said. “We don’t expect people to vote for him just because she is supporting him. She can add some additional excitement and energy and she can open doors and we hope to walk through those doors. But Barack has to make the sale.”
In surveys, people generally resist the idea that their own vote might be influenced by an endorsement, but in Ms. Winfrey’s case, they think it could influence others. In September, 69 percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center said Ms. Winfrey’s endorsement of Mr. Obama would not influence their votes, but 60 percent said her endorsement would help him.
Random interviews last week with avid viewers of her show found that for some women, Ms. Winfrey’s endorsement is an important guidepost.
Kate Anderson, 20, a student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said she loves watching Oprah and that she and her mother “religiously read everything she has to say” in her magazine. She said she likes Mr. Obama and while the endorsement is not the only reason, it is part of the reason.
“I think what Oprah stands for to me is a sense of moving forward and hope, which I think is what Obama has come to stand for,” she said. Ms. Anderson said she was torn between John Edwards and Mr. Obama, “and I still kind of am, but I’m leaning more towards Obama, and that’s because of both Oprah’s support and what I’ve seen of him.”
But others said that, in accordance with Ms. Winfrey’s philosophy of self-reliance, they would not allow an endorsement to have undue influence.
Viola Martino, 58, who owns a salon in Summerville, S.C., takes Ms. Winfrey’s messages to heart. “She influences me by being such a beautiful human being,” Ms. Martino said. “She is almost like a godsend for a lot of folks.” But she will not influence Ms. Martino’s vote. “I’m a person of my own mind and opinion,” she said, sounding as if she had learned Ms. Winfrey’s lessons well.