The Value of the O Factor

The talk out on the presidential campaign trail this week is all about one thing: the “O-Factor.” Everybody is trying to figure out just how much Oprah Winfrey’s support for Barack Obama will help the man become President.  

Some pundits believe that Oprah’s rallies last weekend in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire will turn not only the 65,000 plus attendees into Obama voters, but perhaps persuade another 65,000 more to push the Barack button. Other political experts are saying that the good will Obama gets from the Oprah tour will help him raise a few bucks, but little more than that. Still others point to Bruce Springsteen’s public campaign for John Kerry in 2004 and say that celebrity endorsement like Oprah’s, are not only worthless, they may actually cause more harm than good for the candidate.  One can turn to the polling data and try to crunch the numbers to figure out the value of the “O Factor”, but even that is inconclusive.

A new CBS/New York Times national poll was released last week saying that only 1 percent of people were more likely to vote for Barack Obama because of his supporter, Oprah Winfrey. And, 80 percent of those polled in the survey said the Oprah factor made no difference for Obama’s chances, and 14 percent even said she made them less likely to vote for him. Furthermore, a survey done by the Pew Research Center in September showed that celebrity endorsements in general had little impact on voters. Three-fourths of the respondents said the endorsements of Tiger Woods, Jay Leno, Toby Keith, Angelina Jolie, Jon Stewart, Donald Trump and others would make "no difference" in influencing their vote, the poll found.  

But here’s the strange thing: Obama’s numbers in South Carolina rose after Oprah’s visit, at least according to InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion poll taken over the weekend. InsiderAdvantage’s Matt Towery said it’s obvious that Obama’s numbers rose because of Winfrey’s visit.

“Obama’s support among African-Americans rose a bit over the weekend, while Clinton’s dropped. This follows our poll of late last week in which there was a major shift in black voters towards Obama,” Towery said in a statement. “However, Obama’s white vote has not moved. Clearly the Oprah Winfrey visit to the state moved African-American voters.”

Whether these weekend polls and national surveys have any reliable data is difficult to say. But one can argue the value of the O Factor forever. The fact is that she is out there. Oprah Winfrey is taking time off from her regular life to campaign for a presidential candidate. And people are listening. They are soaking up her words, attending her rallies, and reading her quotes. People trust Oprah more than Springsteen or some other liberal celebrity trying to spark their career or get some good PR. Oprah has it all, from money and fame, to likeability and trust. Her endorsement might just do something, but we’ll never really know – even if Obama does become the next President of the United States.

More importantly than the value of the O Factor, and something that is rarely talked about, is the issue of endorsements overall. Why do Americans trust the words of a third party who they don’t know personally? Why do we allow people like Oprah to waive a magic wand and make (or even try to make) someone president?  While we can embrace Oprah’s encouraging us to buy books, get in shape, and empower women to their full potential, it seems strange that her endorsement would count for such an important decision as to who we will elect as President.  

Contrast Oprah’s influence over Obama’s candidacy with the credibility that former President Bill Clinton brings to his wife’s campaign.  As a popular two-term President, Clinton’s endorsement of his wife says a lot about her qualification to occupy the Presidency. If one were to reverse the situation, lets say, and have former President Clinton going around stumping for the next day time talk show host, people would laugh him out of the room.  Not only has his personal life been the subject of ridicule, both while elected and afterwards, but hosting talk shows has never been his area of expertise.

The Bill Clinton example brings to light another factor in celebrity endorsements, namely proximity.  Hilary enjoys the presumption that in living in the White House and sharing pillow talk with the President, she gained invaluable experience in how to run the executive branch. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but the perception nonetheless persists.  Oprah, on the other hand, appears to be merely a recent acquaintance of Senator Obama, and many voters may wonder what she knows about the Senator that anyone else doesn’t know.

While Oprah’s likeability is likely to rub off on Obama, who is already a likeable character, likeability and electability are two different things entirely, as the examples of Howard Dean and Al Gore have shown.  Though both achieved almost rock-star status early in their campaigns, they were not seen as having the gravitas befitting the office of President.

Maybe Oprah does believe that Senator Obama is the person to lead this country in the future, but she can only base this on what she values and believes in as the direction our nation should go.  But more fundamentally, the “O” factor may be symptomatic of a deeper issue: that we have become so complacent, lazy, and downright disinterested in choosing a presidential candidate that we would rather have it done for us by a media maven.   But there is too much at stake to leave it to others. There is absolutely no substitute for doing our own home work in making the best decision as to whom we will elect as the next President.  It is critical that Americans become more serious about all elections that will take place in ‘08’ and thereafter, and choose the kind of leadership that can guide us through the turbulent times we all know are ahead.