Black Celebrities Becoming Political Players

Oprah is backing Obama; Magic Johnson is picking Clinton. Are there more black celebrity endorsements than usual this election season? NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams considers the impact of these famous supporters backing their favorite candidates.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

To talk more about the weight of celebrity endorsements, we've got NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Hi, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So you just heard Dr. Maya Angelou talk about her endorsement for Hillary Clinton and her good friend Oprah Winfrey is supporting Barack Obama. So are there large numbers of prominent African-Americans throwing their hats into the ring as endorsers?

WILLIAMS: Oh, there are. And, you know, what's interesting is the contrast and the kinds of advertising that hits different markets. For instance, in Iowa, you have people standing up. You've seen Magic Johnson, for example, standing up for Hillary Clinton while you have the ad that you just heard from Maya Angelou playing in South Carolina. And I think it's a very different audience they're trying to appeal to in Iowa versus South Carolina.

Same thing with Barack Obama. Barack Obama has people doing ads for him in Iowa. And he has his own ad out now for the Christmas season in which he features himself and his family and talks about his Christian beliefs, making it very clear he's not a Muslim. And then in South Carolina, appealing to a black audience, he's talking about himself growing up without a dad - a dad that he didn't see after he was at the age of two, making it very clear that he understands the struggles of black families today.

CHIDEYA: When you think about Dr. Angelou's ad, is it something that has a more warm and fuzzy feeling. You were just talking about some warm and fuzzy ads. But in South Carolina, is there generally a sort of goodwill approach to the advertising or is it a little more cutthroat in general?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it depends on the time, Farai. Right now, as we go into this Christmas, New Year's season, everything is taking on a little bit of a glow. And in fact, the emphasis on South Carolina is declining for the moment. It will increase after we get past January 3rd - the Iowa caucus, the 8th in New Hampshire, then South Carolina really comes into sharp focus. And I think you'll see more dollars invested in that advertising market.

But what's interesting, if you look at South Carolina, is the emphasis on black women as the prime target for those ads and Hillary Clinton making the point that she can deliver real change. And Barack Obama is standing up and saying, don't let people tell you that it's not our time, that I'm not ready; they've always said that about you and about me, and what if you'd listened to people who told you you weren't ready? That's the message. And you see it crafted very specifically to advance the argument for the candidate.

CHIDEYA: Now, what's the difference between running an ad on TV, which has certain advantages - you can keep putting it on at different times - and having someone like Oprah campaign right by Obama's side.

WILLIAMS: Oh, it's free advertising. My gosh, when Oprah Winfrey shows up, Farai, you know, that's - all of a sudden, all the news networks are covering it. The local news is covering it. The newspapers are covering it. The radio stations are covering it. It's - the Internet is abuzz with, you know, clips of what she said and what she wore - everything. Every aspect of it becomes a news item.

When you're running a paid ad, you know, when you spoke about TV - TV is very different than radio - radio ads run much larger number and you can target it to the kind of audience that you're after. For example, if you're after what they call an urban audience - what they mean there is a black audience - as opposed to, let's say, a country audience as opposed to an adult-oriented, you know, soft-music audience. All of these are very clear and target demographics for a candidate trying to send a message.

So it varies by audience, but I don't think you can beat having Bill Clinton show up or having Oprah Winfrey show up because that generates free advertising and free messages for the candidate.

CHIDEYA: Are there any black celebrities who are coming out for Republican candidates?

WILLIAMS: I can't think of any off the top of my head as I am talking to you, Farai, so I'm going to have to do some research. But I know of Chuck Norris as the one that everybody talks about for Mike Huckabee, that you'll recall. But no, I can't think of any off the top of my head. Can you?

CHIDEYA: I certainly can't.

WILLIAMS: All right.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm going to take a little diversion here.

WILLIAMS: Okay.

CHIDEYA: We have a Republican who's dropped out. It's recent news, Tom Tancredo.

WILLIAMS: Right.

CHIDEYA: How is that going to shape the race, if at all?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, what's interesting is Tom Tancredo's issue was immigration. And of course not - he's an opponent, a strong opponent of immigration reform, and he was hitting hard on it and hoping that it was an issue that could drive his candidacy. It did not prove to be such. And in fact, he had been attacking Mike Huckabee on this issue much as Mitt Romney, another Republican candidate, had been attacking Huckabee.

With Tancredo dropping out now, I think some of that emphasis shifts. And the question is, if Tancredo had any supporters, where do they go? And does Tancredo endorse anybody? Well, it's unlikely he's going to endorse Huckabee. But the question is who might he endorse and what will happen there? That's not clear because as you said, he's just made this announcement. I think the immigration issue is very much a live wire. And my sense is if you were a Tancredo supporter, right now, your candidate is most likely to be Mitt Romney.

CHIDEYA: Following up on that, you have Latino voters and Nevada being called the Latino primary. Do you think that there will be a kind of egg shell sensitivity to dealing with the immigration issue, and how it affects the Latino voting population?

WILLIAMS: You know, what's interesting is we just had a debate down in Florida featuring the Republican candidates before a largely Hispanic audience on a Hispanic TV cable network. And what the candidates did was to make it very clear that they are so-called compassionate conservatives. But they did it in a way, Farai, as to suggest that they also believe strongly in securing the borders and they believe that people who are here illegally should be dealt with and not dealt with in terms of what the opponents of immigration reform refer to as amnesty.

So they had to hold the line because they couldn't be inconsistent. In living in the media world that we live in, starring Farai Chideya, you know that if they had delivered one message to the Hispanic audience and another to a conservative white audience, people would have called them hypocrites. So they have - what they did was soften it, but hold the line and say, yes, we believe in investing money in securing the borders before there's any kind of immigration reform. And they did not back off the idea that it would be amnesty to allow the 12 million or so illegal immigrants in the country, a process by which they could become legal here without having to leave the country and go back home.

CHIDEYA: Well, thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Oh, you're welcome and happy holidays to you.

CHIDEYA: And happy holidays to you.

That was NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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