The era of celebrity endorsements ended some time ago. We no longer buy the shaving cream that Derek Jeter tells us to use; nor do we vote as some Hollywood actor suggests. We have come to assume that political endorsements are often the product of partisan loyalty rather than any particular standard of merit and that commercial testimonials come only in exchange for cash.
But Oprah’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is truly unique and will have a profound impact on the presidential race. She transforms a candidacy into a movement and will increase his momentum from a growth curve to a surging wave.
It is not just that people trust what Oprah says. Her endorsement is important because of who she is and what message her support sends to those like her. As the most famous black woman in the world, she is a cultural icon. And as a figure who effortlessly crosses the racial divide, she has a special role in a presidential primary that pits the first woman against the first black to contest for president with a serious chance of victory. In this environment, Oprah’s demographic is her message.
Oprah sends a message to all American women that it is OK not to vote for Hillary and one to African-Americans that they need to vote for Obama. Were Oprah seen primarily as a black leader, her endorseme nt of a candidate of her own race running against one of her own gender wouldn’t mean that much. If her reputation were one for putting her race constantly ahead of her gender, her endorsement of Obama would seem automatic. But that is not who Oprah is.
She is iconic to women of all races; to them she’s a woman who is black, not a black who is female. So her refusal to endorse a fellow female seeking the presidency is tremendously significant to women voters. She sends a message by her unusual intervention in a political contest in which a woman is running. It reads: A woman, yes. This woman, no.
Oprah’s embrace of Obama’s message of change stamps his campaign mantra as legitimate and turns experience into a disqualification rather than an attribute for Hillary. That this much-admired woman would turn against Hillary in order to seek change in Washington lifts Obama to JFK proportions even as it pins on Hillary — to her detriment — the Nixon slogan of 1960: “Experience counts.”