To say Oprah Winfrey is popular is like saying the sun is warm. No one person can influence what people do, and to a lesser degree, what they think, than Oprah. In the past she’s been involved politically, but only behind the scenes, hosting fundraisers, giving money herself and making a few public statements. Her considerable power to sway behavior, her political capital, so to speak, has yet to be tested outside the world of retail.
That test starts this weekend.
As we noted in last week’s podcast (archived here), Oprah is joining Barack Obama on the campaign trail this weekend in the pivotal states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, stumping for her candidate and creating media buzz campaigns dream about.
With every news outlet touting the arrival of arguably the most famous woman in the world, interest in hearing what she has to say is something unfamiliar in politics. Most people don’t want to hear what a politician has to say, especially this early in the election cycle.
But Oprah is no Barbara Streisand, Oprah hasn’t been preaching to us from her ivory tower for years. Oprah is more like Willy Wonka, we all know were she is (though we could see her on TV), and we all speculate as to what she’s like and what she thinks, but we really don’t know. While we have no doubt she speaks her mind on her show without fear, she has (for the most part) remained silent when it comes to supporting candidate.
Well, she’s about to open up her factory and let the world in to see it, or hear it.
If Oprah mentions her book, it’s a bestseller over night. Will that work in politics?
We all know people whose opinions we respect in movies, music, food, whatever, but we would never vote the way they suggested unless we agreed with them. Renting a movie for night isn’t the same as voting for President.
So as the first day of a three state swing readies for kickoff, the question remains: will it swing momentum to Obama?
We see things unfolding this way; it will give Obama a bump, perhaps a large bump, but it is not certain.
There is no doubt this will give Obama his largest crowds on the trail thus far (they had to move the South Carolina event to a stadium), and a large portion of them will be there only to see Oprah. It’s like being the opening act for the most popular band in the world, you will get a large crowd to hear your stuff, but they aren’t really there to see you. You have to be ON because you’re never going to outshine the headliner.
Only this time the order is reversed, the opening act is the headliner. Once Oprah speaks her bit, some people will leave. Others will stay, but will have an eye on the door and what Obama says, and how he says it, will determine whether or not they stick around.
Oprah is a tough act to follow, can’t Obama do it? It’s difficult, if not impossible to be ON all the time. If Obama is ON, his numbers will quickly reflect that. But if he doesn’t live up to the hype, if he’s OFF, if he doesn’t rise to the moment, he’s in serious trouble and risks a collapse.
There is little the voting public will forgive less than not living up to expectations, and they are high for Obama at these events. Fall short and people will leave wondering who it was Oprah was talking about.
Having Oprah join Obama on the trail is THE make or break moment for him. He’ll never have more ears on him in person again in this primary season. Whether or not he delivers under that sort of pressure remains to be seen. But we’ll be watching, as, you can bet, will the Clinton campaign.