The Power of Oprah to help Obama

Finally I have something new to report on Barack Obama:

Prior to the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary, Barack Obama was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, a celebrity with a proven track record of influencing her fans’ commercial decisions. In this paper, we use geographic differences in subscriptions to O! – The Oprah Magazine and the sale of books Winfrey recommended as part of Oprah’s Book Club to assess whether her endorsement affected the Primary outcomes. We find her endorsement had a positive effect on the votes Obama received, increased the overall voter participation rate, and increased the number of contributions received by Obama. No connection is found between the measures of Oprah’s influence and Obama’s success in previous elections, nor with underlying local political preferences. Our results suggest that Winfrey’s endorsement was responsible for approximately additional 1,000,000 votes for Obama.

That is work by Craig Garthwaite and Tim Moore and here is the full paper.


...Does anyone else find this a little worrisome?

What annoys me most about Oprah: she has some really good books on her book list, so when I want to read one I find myself having to cover up the "Oprah's Book Club" sticker on the cover while I sit at the local bookstore...

That, and, I don't think I would consider her a reliable authority on politics, economics, or anything related to the office of president.

Tina Fey was right. I quote:
"women today don't feel obligated to vote for a candidate because she's a woman. women today feel perfectly free to make whatever choice Oprah tells them to."

Taking a cue from Oprah is not so much about her pointing out instances of hard to discern quality. It's about feeling connected. This is why it dovetails nicely with Obama's campaign.

That's 1,000,000 more reasons why Bryan Caplan is right about voters.

Also, it turns out that the author is a conservative activist without an economics degree -

"Also, it turns out that the author is a conservative activist without an economics degree"

yet. Look's like he's an Econ PhD student at Maryland.

This is Tim Moore, one of the authors of this paper. Thanks for posting it Tyler, and thanks for the interesting comments.

I think it is important to provide some information about our affiliations and motivations. Both Craig and I are PhD students in Economics at the University of Maryland. We thought it would be interesting to see if Oprah's endorsement had any effect on the Democratic Primary, and tried to think of ways to do so. We do not really have a view on who it may be good or bad for - hopefully it provides us with more insights into the political process and voting behavior (although it is still a working paper and we are aware of the difficulties in inferring causation).

We have been full time graduate students for the past few years, with no current employment by think tanks or similar (although Craig did work for a think tank before entering grad school). We received no funding or support on this project.

I'm not buying it.

First, the paper argues correctly that Oprah influences consumer decisions, but this influence is for products PEOPLE ARE NOT AWARE OF whereas the public was ALREADY AWARE OF OBAMA.

Oprah supports a book. People notice the book. Bookstores prepare for the rush by placing the book front and center. One thing leads to another.

In that respect, the paper--in its overall arguments, not necessarily it's detailed analysis--is comparing apples and oranges. Their initial impulse or argument is based upon a false pretense.

Second, I don't believe one can properly control for the possibility that people who subscribe to Oprah's magazine would have voted for Obama anyway.

Perhaps the authors, using similar methods, could determine the impact of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on voting?

Hey Tim, Good to see your clarifications. Yes, as CapQuirk mentions there are counterexplanations to the correlation you find, but this is creative and definitely gets me thinking. (I like that you focus on the primary because this avoids the most obvious counter-explanations about the demographics of party ID.) CapQuirk, based on my own look at the 2004 scenario, an election in which Oprah offered no endorsement but just hosted both candidates, I'd say Oprah *does* have a non-trivial effect on the citizenry.

What Matt Baum (at Harvard) and I found is that among voters who didn't consume a lot of political news or profess much interest in the election, watching candidate appearances on Oprah and other soft news programs actually did have an effect on viewers' likelihood to match candidates to their own extant policy preferences. (Our paper, The Oprah Effect.)

That is, watching a candidate talk on Oprah aided inattentive would-be voters (who neither care to consume media like the NYT nor would likely integrate all the information there if they did) to vote "correctly."

This is the first time Oprah's made a Presidential endorsement. She's a uniquely powerful celebrity-- previous studies of the limited effects of celebrity endorsements might not tell us everything there is to know about this case. Maybe there is something new under the sun this time.

Today, the International Journal of Press/Politics published online a new article by Pease and Brewer about this same set of questions. They find that in an experimental setting (a not exactly diverse population of undergrads), learning of Oprah's endorsement in the primary led potential voters to support Obama not necessarily because they had a "I like who Oprah likes" response, BUT because the endorsement made them see Obama as a more viable candidate. In other words, the candidate with her backing was simply a better bet in the general. Voters may use the Oprah endorsement as a cue because they're strategic, not because they're mindless followers.

In any case, that she is making an endorsement this time rather than remaining neutral as she has in the past raises all kinds of questions about what's good for democracy.

Good idea, yeah. The approach is vexed, but I give them credit for resourcefulness and I suspect the effect they're seeing is at least partially real.

For me, the problem for internal consistency of the paper is that if voters are as "rational" and spry with heuristics as the entire literature assumes, then there's little justification for the supposition that just because a person tends to like the same classic novels as Oprah or consume her associates' relationship and decor advice, she will automatically support Oprah's candidate. Do people now consume vote choice right along with moisturizer? That's pushing the theory pretty far, to a place I would hope many political theorists would find a bit vulgar.

But it may be true. Methodological perfection wouldn't convince me here--what would be genuinely interesting is randomized, retrospective in-depth interviews with book club members and O subscribers about their subjective process of vote choice. The authors have aggregate data from Nielsen bookscan... but the enumerated lists of both groups are out there somewhere and it'd be "good for democracy" to learn about those populations. *IF* the authors are objective, which has been called in to question a bit.

Oprah endorsement sways a million voters? I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Wake up America! Do a million people in America not possess the sufficient amount of gray matter to take a long, hard look at the issues facing them today, and vote for the candidate that best suits their own stances on these issues? It scares the hell out of me. These multi-million dollar entertainers should do just that...entertain us, and leave the political ring alone.

Why must America vote for someone on the sole fact that a well-known celebrity is behind them? Or on their age? Or on how they look?

Decisions made this election should be based on both long term and short term policies and how they will affect you, not on the Oprahs and Angelinas of the world.

I'm a huge Oprah fan. I don't buy her book club picks, but I do read her magazine and watch her show whenever I can, and I can say that for me personally, the endorsement had a very big impact. I would not have supported Obama had it not been for her, in fact I would have not supported anyone. But seeing Obama trying to pander to all those Oprah fans in Iowa with jokes about Oprah being his VP really made him seem down to earth and really gave him a soul that I didn't see before. And of course I was aware of Obama before Oprah endorsed him, but I never gave him much attention or interest. She made me see him in a whole new light.

OPRAH ... from spending several years in Jeremiah Wright's anti-American racist church, listening to sermons like "God Damn America", and giving life time achievement awards to the likes of Louis Farrakhan ... to her newest opportunistic religious beliefs ... who could possibly take Oprah seriously? This woman's ego is soooo big, being a billionaire celebrity isn't enough, she has to start her own religion ... not to mention all the additional money she is going to make selling all those book, tapes, CD's, etc. to her poor followers. Oprah's new power hungry ambitions include efforts to replace traditional America with Obama ... and access to a President she puts into office ... to her efforts at replacing Christianity with a new religion she controls. I think it's time for America to deny Oprah access to our television sets.

Oprah refuses to have Sarah Palin on her show but now she is pushing a bill to be passed,on her show. Oh and gee whiz, guess who the sponsor of the bill is? Joe Biden. My oh my how blatant can you get. She has alerted her production company to be ready for an onslaught of emails. She is pitiful. I will definately vote against the unfair Oprah by voting McCain/Palin.

I find it very disheartening that people are like sheep following the Shepard. Where is the individual investigation to make an informed decision?It is a sad day indeed when the U.S. president can be elected not because he is the most qualified for the job but because a T.V. endorsement is the deciding factor.

I find it very disheartening that people are like sheep following the Shepard. Where is the individual investigation to make an informed decision?It is a sad day indeed when the U.S. president can be elected not because he is the most qualified for the job but because a T.V. endorsement is the deciding factor.

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