What do Willie Nelson, Madonna, Jon Bovi, Martin Sheen, and in reverse, George Clooney have in common? They are big money celebrities and virtual household names. They all endorsed Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. Nelson endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Bon Jovi endorsed John Kerry. Sheen endorsed Howard Dean. Madonna backed Wesley Clark. One of their picks went down to flaming defeat. The other three never came close to getting the Democratic presidential nomination.
As for Clooney, he publicly declared that he hoped that his non-endorsement of Kerry probably helped him at the polls. It didn't. But at least Clooney recognized a political truism that's etched in stone. That's that a celebrity cheer lead of a presidential candidate does absolutely nothing to boost the candidate.
Yet mega star Oprah Winfrey thinks things can be different now that she's signed on as one of Barack Obama's major bankrollers, an ex-officio campaign cheerleader, and celebrity marketer. After all how could millions of voters refuse a command from the closest thing to America's earth mother to back Obama? It's simple. Almost no one pays any attention to what celebrities have to say about politicians. A September Newsweek poll removed any doubt about that. Barely three percent of respondents said that a celebrity endorsement had any influence on who they voted for. Oprah will have zilch effect on Obama's White House run for two common sense reasons.
In between an occasional touch on social issues, Oprah feeds millions of daytime housewives and house husbands a steady dose of sneaks and peeks into gossipy movie star chit chat and self-help marital and family relationship problem solving. Now in one big leap she's asking the same millions that dote on her sage advice on relationships to shift gears and trust her judgment that Obama is the best to handle global warming, tax policy, the Iraq war, terrorism, job creation and inflation, failing public schools, criminal justice issues, and judicial appointments. That's like asking millions to accept disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick as the chair of the Humane Society of the U.S.'s animal cruelty prevention week. It's a terrible fit, and Oprah lovers will see through that.
The one group, though, that Obama is banking that Oprah can help pry loose from the Hillary column is women. But polls have shown that women voters don't march in lock step with a woman candidate solely based on gender no matter how much personal sympathy and empathy they may have with the female candidate. They also judge a female candidate on their stance on the issues, their political beliefs and party affiliation. Hillary is a tough sell to many women who either like or loathe her, and she's a politician. There's absolutely no reason to think that women voters will stampede to Obama because their favorite female talk show guru told them too.
The ultimate irony is that Oprah's roughest sale of Obama will be to black women. Polls show that they are overwhelmingly backing Hillary. Though most adore Oprah and are well aware of her long standing backing of Obama, that hasn't shaken their support of Clinton the least bit.
The other reason Oprah's lusty public cheer of Obama won't work is Oprah. She's fabulously bankable, and much beloved, but she's also an African-American. And so is Obama. Oprah hasn't given the faintest hint that her tout and bankroll of Obama has anything to do with race, and is careful to make it clear that it's based solely on her belief that his competence and qualifications make him the right presidential stuff. However, an underlying suspicion is that there's more to it than that and that she's just as thrilled as many other blacks at the thought that an African-American can actually bag the presidency. That's not exactly playing the race card, but for an untold number of skeptical voters, and that include those that are enraptured with Oprah, it edges uncomfortably close to a racial motive.
Recent polls have shown that more whites than ever say they are willing to vote for a black candidate for the presidency and that they like Obama. They also say by big margins that he is to new on the scene, inexperienced, and unknown. His gaffes on foreign policy in debates, and his grope for a killer position that will separate him from the other Democratic candidates hasn't done much to mark him as a sure-handed, experienced, public policy wonk.
Super celeb George Clooney came closest to sizing up the media and public's infatuation with Obama when he compared him to a rock star. That's not good. How many voters would vote for Madonna for president, or even Clooney for that matter? That's not to say that endorsements don't help a candidate, but they have to be the right endorsements. The right ones come from seasoned politicians and respected industry, labor, or public interest groups that have the trust and confidence of voters, and a solid track record in fighting for legislation and public policy change.
Oprah can dump plenty of cash into Obama's campaign coffers, and that counts for something. But it's not the adrenalin shot that his candidacy needs. That's the something even America's most beloved day time talk show host can't give.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/earlhutchinson