The Oprah Effect: Celebrity Endorsements and Election Outcomes
Posted on August 3, 2012
In the months leading up to Election Day, Hollywood will come alive with political buzz. A Twitter feed normally used for keeping fans up-to-date on a celebrity’s exploits may become a platform for endorsing a candidate, and interviews may turn their focus from publicity to political preference. Although celebrities may feel that their endorsements are influential, in most cases they do not impact election outcomes. Even when then-candidate Obama was endorsed by Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and Governor Deval Patrick, he still lost the 2008 Massachusetts primary. A celebrity endorsement can even jeopardize a candidate’s popularity according to a Forbes.com poll in which respondents said they would respond negatively to endorsements by certain celebrities, including Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, and Donald Trump.
Oprah Winfrey seems to be the only celebrity to whom these facts do not apply. Oprah, who has appeared on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential list nine times, is famous for having a powerful effect on viewers. For example, after she included Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in “Oprah’s Book Club”, sales increased 5,400 percent from the twelve weeks prior to its inclusion in the group.
“The Oprah Effect” is just as powerful in politics. According to a 2008 Study conducted by University of Maryland economists Craig Garthwaite and Tim Moore, Oprah’s endorsement resulted in over one million votes for President Obama in the 2008 primary. It not only helped him win the race, but it also increased voter turnout.
Even Oprah’s influence has its limitations, however. While her endorsement had a significant impact in the primary election, it had no influence in the general election. According to Garthwaite, the only time that endorsements have the potential to make a difference is in the primary race, when candidates have few policy differences and voters are not making decisions based on party lines.
Although there is little research regarding the effectiveness of other celebrity endorsements, it is clear that Oprah is the exception to the rule. Oprah’s endorsement made an unparalleled impact because she is not an average celebrity; she has built her entire career around her ability to reach audiences in a way that others cannot. “The Oprah Effect” is real, but for other celebrities, their fame does not translate to power in politics.
by Ryan De Lara, 2012 Summer Intern