The Oprah Effect: Activating Latent Supporters
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Why is this couple smiling? Because Oprah might be the friend they need in order to win ultra tight elections.
More than 8 million people watch Oprah's show and more than 2 million people read her magazine. Previous research shows that these heavy daytime TV viewers do not typically follow coverage of politics very closely and do not vote in presidential primaries. Indeed, the majority don't even vote in the general presidential election.
So what does it mean when Oprah comes out and endorses for president Barak Obama? The answer is that it is hard to say.
In today's political world, the country is so deeply and evenly divided, most people already know that they will vote their pre-existing partisan or ideological preference even before learning who the nominees will be. As was the case in 2004 the general election is likely to come down to a mobilization game rather than a traditional competition for swing voters. Why? There simply won't be many undecideds out there.
As Matthew Dowd describes the Bush strategy in the excellent documentary ...So Goes the Nation, the goals of contemporary campaigns should be very similar to the trends in marketing today. The question as he puts it, is whether you persuade people to switch from McDonalds to Burger King, or do you activate and energize people who already prefer Burger King to start going four times more often?
In 2004, instead of trying to persuade the few swing voters out there, Dowd and the Bush team focused their energies on micro-targeting and activating specific groups of citizens--such as Evangelicals--who might latently already identify with Bush. The goal was to get these latent supporters to vote for the first time, donate for the first time, volunteer on a campaign for the first time, and to turn out to vote for the first time.
Indeed, as US News reports, exit polls showed that 3.5 million white evangelicals who stayed home in 2000 cast ballots in 2004. Not only did the Bush team turn out more Evangelical voters, they also boosted their support, with 78 percent favoring Bush compared to 68 percent in 2000. This boost gained by activating latent supporters translated into nearly 6 million new evangelical votes, or twice Bush's margin of victory over Kerry nationally.
How does this relate to Oprah's endorsement of Obama? As USC history professor Steve Ross explains on a recent episode of NPR's On the Media, "If Oprah can get even one percent of the national population to vote who did not vote before, as we've seen from the last two elections, that one percent can make all the difference in the world." (audio above).
As a recent Pew analysis reports, Oprah's endorsement is not the only one that counts. Alan Greenspan and religious leaders rank higher among the total sample of adults surveyed. But in aggregate those figures are a bit misleading.
I read the Pew data differently. (So don't let the title at the top of that graph distract you.) Oprah's endorsement is a huge exclamation point for Obama because the diva's admirers have one major difference from those who might follow the lead of Greenspan or who might be mobilized at church: as heavy daytime talk show viewers, they are a demographic that barely pays attention to politics, much less votes.
By mobilizing these viewers, Oprah would be adding new people to the voter tallies and with a strong proportion favoring Obama. Moreover, the "Oprah Effect" spans beyond just her viewers. It's created the type of positive buzz that percolates into offices and interpersonal discussion. Not only that, but news of her endorsement has spread across the celebrity news outlets, giving one-sided promotional attention to Obama at places like Access Hollywood and People magazine, media zones that don't normally track the elections.
Electorally, it could prove to be a major windfall gain for Obama.
In today's political world, it's the law of small numbers. Not only in the general election, but especially in the upcoming state primaries. If Oprah's viewers suddenly turn up to vote in these primaries, diluting the concentration of liberal party faithful who traditionally dominate the selection process, in some states, the 1% to 2% gain is what Obama might need to win.
Note: For more on celebrity news impacts on the election, see my discussion of Fred Thompson.