Selling Soap, and Presidents
The soap maker sounded incredibly excited. Who could blame him? After sending every product he makes to Oprah in the hopes that she would fall in love with one of them, she finally did. The vendor's soap was on her latest list of favorites. Already, the interviews were pouring in and the company was preparing for the avalanche. The folks at Oprah's show, he explained on the radio, had advised them about how to ratchet up capacity on their website so it wouldn't be shut down by the spike in traffic the show would surely generate. The local broadcast alone had resulted in 1,000 new hits. How do you spell "jackpot"?
Would you trust Oprah's judgment on soap?
People do. Lots of people.
She can sell soap. She can create bestsellers. What Oprah reads, America reads.
But can she sell candidates? Will the Oprah effect translate into votes?
Not so fast.
This fall, when Oprah announced her endorsement of Barack Obama, even celebrities were pulling strings to be on the invite list for the big fundraiser at her house. Can she raise money? Absolutely — even though her name is missing from Obama's voluntary disclosures of his major bundlers. She was instead described by his campaign as the celebrity draw, rather than the person who takes responsibility, or credit, for what comes in.
But what didn't happen after Oprah's endorsement was any spike in the polls for the man she selected. Where was the Oprah effect? Certainly, the endorsement got lots of attention, more than any other this season. Anyone paying attention to politics couldn't avoid learning that the one-woman industry had jumped into the political ring. But in terms of polls, Hillary continued to dominate and, in fact, even won the money primary in the next quarter, which had been Obama's domain.
On Monday, the Obama campaign announced that Oprah would actually be campaigning, beginning with an appearance in two weeks in Iowa. This comes on the heels of new polls that show Obama leading in Iowa, along with a press assault on Hillary that began two debates ago with a new round of gossip and mudslinging about everything from what Hillary supposedly has on Obama to what law firm she worked for 36 years ago, not to mention Newt Gingrich's prediction of an Obama victory in Iowa.
Can Oprah put Obama over the top? That's what Newt says.
No one doubts that Oprah is remarkable. But presidents are not soap. Trusting a beloved celebrity to recommend what you wash with is different than trusting them to tell you who should run the country. In my experience, what celebrities bring is crowds and attention. They don't bring votes. In fact, almost no one does.
Endorsements from unions bring workers and resources. Endorsements from elected officials may bring networks of political operatives, although few elected officials have the kinds of "machines" that can be offered up whole to another candidate. But there is no one in politics who brings blocs of voters. Those days are over, if they ever existed. We may be sheep when it comes to soap and books, but not when it comes to primaries and caucuses. More people will come out to see Obama and Oprah than Obama alone. But the task of converting those in the audience from Oprah acolytes to Obama voters is Obama's, not Oprah's.
What Oprah does do is raise expectations for Obama. Fairly or unfairly, and I think unfairly, Oprah's presence, and the crowds she is sure to generate, will make it appear that Iowa is Obama's to lose. And Iowa is all about expectations. The more people say you should win Iowa, the more essential it becomes that you do. The bigger the margin that's predicted, the bigger the margin you need to claim victory.
Hillary will not be knocked out if she loses Iowa. You don't knock out frontrunners with a single blow. But if Obama loses — given the expectations that are building, the predictions that are being floated, not to mention the Oprah of it all — he will be badly hurt.
If the soap doesn't sell, there's always next Christmas. Politics, however, is a now-or-never game.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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