Measuring the Oprah Effect

The talk-show host is on the stump for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Jim Vandehei, executive editor of Politico.com, considers the boost.

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TOURE, host:

Now we have Jim Vandehei on the line to talk about politics. First question, though. First, I'm wondering. What do Danny Glover, Tim Robbins, Jackson Brown and Kevin Bacon all have in common? It's not that they've all been on "Oprah," but, you know, that's close. Like Oprah, they've all endorsed a presidential candidate, and they're all behind John Edwards.

Kevin Bacon even performed a song.

(Soundbite of song, "Only A Good Woman")

THE BACON BROTHERS (Rock Band): (Singing) Listen, son, you'd better get yourself a plan. He said, you get a good woman and she'll make you a man. He said only…

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: His Sunday serenading Iowa is just one of many celebrity endorsements in the current presidential campaign. Mike Huckabee is campaigning with Chuck Norris at his side.

(Soundbite of political campaign ad)

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Arkansas Governor; Republican Presidential Candidate): Chuck Norris doesn't endorse. He tells America how it's going to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Giuliani's got Robert Duvall. Hillary Clinton has Barbra Streisand, and tomorrow, Magic Johnson will be out there with her. Bill Richardson's got TV president Martin Sheen. Dennis Kucinich has Sean Penn. McCain's got Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who last election was with George Bush. And, of course, there's the Big Kahuna, Oprah Winfrey…

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: …standing beside Barack Obama. But research published recently in the December issue of the Journal of Political Marketing says big names do not buy votes, and sometimes it backfires. Political scientists at Saint Joseph's University found celebrity endorsements can help a campaign gain exposure, but when voters think a celebrity is using status to sway votes, they rebel and reject the candidate.

Jim VandeHei is with us, co-founder of Politico.com. Jim, over the past week, Obama has surged in the polls just as Oprah is out there campaigning for him. Is Oprah making a difference? Is Oprah making the difference?

Mr. JIM VANDEHEI (Co-founder, Politico.com): Oh, I think she certainly helps, at least in the short-term, for a couple of reasons. One, she helps draw a really big crowd. And I think more importantly than that, she helped Obama get a lot of favorable coverage. There was all about, oh, Obama and Oprah, while Hillary Clinton was getting a lot of negative coverage about turmoil inside of her campaign. So for three days, you know, I think that Obama got a nice bump, and I think he can credit Oprah for at least part of that.

Oprah, unlike almost all the other celebrities you talked about in your intro, might actually be able to help deliver some votes because she has a very, very loyal audience - unlike any of those actors or any musical performers - who actually listen to what she says. They buy books when she says to buy books. They change their lives when she tells them to change their lives. So maybe they'll actually turn out and vote because she tells them to vote.

As for the other celebrities, I just think there's minimal advantage for candidates other than, you know, people talking about it, and they might get an extra couple of folks that show up at a campaign event.

TOURE: Joe Lieberman isn't a Hollywood star, but he's a household name. And he's nominally Democrat, but he's endorsed Republican John McCain. Does an endorsement from across the aisle have a chance to make a difference?

Mr. VANDEHEI: In this specific case, it certainly - I think it could help McCain for one reason. McCain's whole game right now is trying to win in New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, you can cross over and vote in other primaries, and independents can register and jump into the Republican vote. And I think his appeal is that he can bring together a lot of those independents and moderates and even some conservative Republicans in New Hampshire and potentially win New Hampshire.

I think having Lieberman by his side, the fact that they're doing it in New Hampshire is just another day where McCain can say, look, I'm the one guy who can actually bring the two sides together and can be electable and can maybe help change the country. So I think, you know, in that minor sliver, it's pretty good for McCain. It also, quite frankly, could backfire once you get outside of New Hampshire, because Lieberman is essentially a Democrat on almost every issue except for national security, and particularly Iraq and terrorism. So his views on spending, on education and a whole lot of other issues could get McCain in some trouble down the road, but he's betting in the short time this is a good one for him.

TOURE: Mari Culver, wife of Iowa Governor Chet Culver, has said she's going to endorse John Edwards this afternoon. Is that going to make a difference? She's not an elected official, but neither is Oprah.

Mr. VANDEHEI: You know, again, so few people vote in Iowa in these caucuses and it's such a - it's so much about relationships. And for Edwards, he just desperately needs to win Iowa, just like McCain desperately needs to win New Hampshire, so he'll take anything he can get. I do not think it's a sort of a make or break moment for him, or it's something that we'll all the sudden be talking about an Edwards' surge because of this. You know, Edwards is, you know, I guess Newsweek calls him a sleeper on their cover this week. I think justifiably so, because he does have such a good organization in Iowa, and he does very well in rural communities in particular that tend to be underpolled when people are doing these statewide surveys. So it's not inconceivable that he could win Iowa and really become a force in this race for the Democratic nomination, but it's certainly not going to be because the governor's wife endorsed him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Most of the people that we named were actors, but there are a couple of athletes in the mix: Curt Schilling, Magic Johnson. Do you think that athletes can have an influence?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, I just don't know how. Again, maybe like somebody shows up because they want to see Magic Johnson, or they're a big Curt Schilling fan, but, I mean, just think about your own life. Have you ever met someone who's like, ah, yeah. I voted for so-and-so because a really good right-hander told me to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Should we be critical of the reasons why stars are drawn to candidates? Is it because they really believe in the message, or they see another chance to get on stage and get some more publicity and get some more image on them?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Oh, I think it's a mix. I think candidates themselves tend to be star struck. They all want to be celebrities, at least inside their own heads. And I think by gluing themselves to a celebrity, they feel pretty good about it, so they go out and they actually recruit these people to come to events. And for the most part, it really is meaningless. You know, and there was, I think in 2004, I covered Kerry, and he had some events where he brought Bruce Springsteen in. And he would go to college campuses, and Madison is the one that sticks out in my mind most poignantly, because there was about 60,000 people who showed up to listen to Springsteen play and then listen to Kerry really blow a moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That was sad.

Mr. VANDEHEI: I kind of like that (unintelligible) speech. Well, there was data after that election that a lot of - that there was a big surge in people signing up to vote in that Madison Area and then voting, and that might have helped Kerry actually win Wisconsin. So there could have been a correlation, because while they were doing the concert, they were signing people up, getting them to register to vote and made - you know, even a couple here are there, it does make a difference.

STEWART: Well, it sounds like endorsement plus action might be the way to go.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Right. And then you have - Kevin Bacon, you know, they can help a candidate cut loose stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VANDEHEI: They can kick off their Sunday shoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: But they - I mean, the endorser has to really have their heart in it, and I think Oprah's heart is clearly in it. I remember reading in the New York Times Bruce Springsteen saying while he was backstage about to go play for John Kerry, he's thinking this guy has no chance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: And the voters can feel that, can't they?

Mr. VANDEHEI: They really can. I mean, and the reason - I actually was covering it closely enough, I was about five feet behind both of them as they were doing this performance. And it was amazing, because it was such an electric atmosphere, and you could not imagine - like so many people screaming in the streets of Madison, with the backdrop of the capital, and Springsteen playing. And Kerry did that both there and Ohio. He came in, and it was such a dud. It's like, dude, how could you blow this moment?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VANDEHEI: So, like, I mean, that's probably where Springsteen's interpretation came. It's like, oh, man, like this guy, you know, he sort of, you know, sort of sounds good, you know, behind the scenes. But when he gets on stage, he's just not that great.

TOURE: Jim, last question. How about those Packers?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Okay. Not just how about those Packers, the Cowboys lose. Now we have a chance for home field advantage. I could be at the NFC championship game in Lambeau Field, crying, crying.

TOURE: I got to think that Brett Favre is the only gunslinger left who could possibly beat the Patriots, don't you think?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Oh, I - the Patriots are beatable. They only beat the Jets, and the Jets are God awful, by bout 10 points.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Well, it was snowing. Thanks, Jim.

STEWART: The world where politics and sports collide, in Jim VandeHei's head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VANDEHEI: See you later (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: We had Jim from Politico.com. I think he was calling us from the train station. I think he's got business…

TOURE: It sounded like - yeah.

STEWART: …to - here today. So we appreciate the time.

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