Corrected 12/6/07: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported one of the cities in which the Oprah television show is most popular. It is Columbia, S.C.
When the day shift at the Bunn-O-Matic coffee- maker factory in Creston, Iowa, ends at 3:30 p.m., there's plenty of time for workers like Monica McCarthy to head home and watch Oprah at 4—and many do.
"I like her. I've read some of the books she's recommended, and when she talks about charities, I pay attention," says McCarthy, 61. But she's not sure what to make of the billionaire superstar's plan to campaign in Iowa this week for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Winfrey, 53, a longtime Obama supporter, is also scheduled to stump for him in two other early primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"Somehow, in the political arena, for me it just doesn't fit," says McCarthy, a Democrat who remains undecided. "It won't turn me politically, but she does speak for women, and it may turn some." For Senator Obama, locked in a three-way Hawkeye State barnburner with Sen. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, "some" women lured by the famous Oprah stamp of approval may be just enough.
Highly coveted. Women are the ultimate electoral prize in Iowa. Historically, they make up a majority of Iowa caucusgoers, most of whom are in their 50s. With the state's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses only four weeks away, Obama and Clinton are frantically wooing that desirable demographic, which the Clinton campaign, until recently, appeared to have locked up. By showcasing Winfrey, Obama is making a clear grab for their votes.
Celebrity endorsements often spark nothing more than a fleeting rush of publicity. Clinton's announcement last week that she'd been endorsed by Barbra Streisand prompted little more than a shrug, especially since the famous singer hasn't scheduled any Winfrey-like appearances. But barrels of ink have been spilled over the past week dissecting whether Winfrey's magic at using her wildly popular show and self-named magazine to turn books into bestsellers and new products into runaway hits will translate in the political arena. Will the fairy dust she sprinkles elevate Obama in the same way?
Iowa is as good a place as any to test her political muscle. Only in Columbia, S.C., and Jackson, Miss., is Winfrey's talk show more popular than it is in the central Iowa markets served by television stations KCCI in Des Moines and KCRG in Cedar Rapids. It's no coincidence that those are the cities where Winfrey will appear with Obama and his wife, Michelle. The numbers that really count? Women over age 50 make up the biggest chunk of Oprah's audience, says Bob Day, KCCI's operations manager, followed closely by the "desirable" demographic of women ages 25 to 54.
The Obama endorsement is a first for Winfrey, who has said she supports the Illinois senator because she knows him well enough to believe in him and what he stands for. In September, she hosted a fundraiser at her California home that raked in $3 million for him. It's not clear what else she plans.
McCarthy insists that, in Iowa, the "celebrity stuff" is fun, but what's really influential is how your friends and neighbors plan to vote on caucus night. Democrat Judy Beisch of Ottumwa, Iowa, agrees, saying Obama need look no further than his own family for his most powerful surrogate. "Oprah can't hurt," says Beisch, "but people would do better to go listen to Michelle Obama. She's the one talking about all the things that make us mad in government and how he's not going to put up with that nonsense." Maybe Obama's magic dust has always been just an arm's length away.