Breaking Down the Oprah Factor in Politics

The media mogul has staked out positions in public policy and put money behind a number of candidates. Is it political ambition or is she seeking influence?

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Oprah Winfrey will run for political office at some point. And if I lost that bet, I’d mos def put a dollar straight on the possibility that she is—at the very least—figuring out how to be the progressive black female version of the Koch Brothers.

Recent movements suggest it’s not a matter of if but when.   

A bored, bigoted rich white guy with a bad comb-over and a leaned-in eBay CEO shouldn’t be the only nontraditional politicos who can catch that fire in the belly. Why not a sister with more than enough millions to dump into a race and the global brand recognition to capture the imaginations of eager voters?

We can rightly assume that Winfrey’s latest media-empire transitions are simply part of her continuing evolution as a successful businesswoman who is keeping her brand alive. With her having gone from syndicated talk show host to cable network owner, there’s not much doubt that she’s looking to carve out a permanent branding space. Every opportunity leads back to Oprah-centric success and feeds into her estimated $3 billion-plus value.

And even though her brand has taken enormous hits since the 2011 cancellation of her trend-setting eponymous show (such as the steep 22 percent drop in O, The Oprah Magazine readership), it’s not as if they were fatal blows. She’s still sticking around. We’d be surprised to wake up tomorrow and read a headline that Oprah had gone belly-up.

But what’s intriguing about Winfrey’s trajectory is her shrewd entry into the political marketplace, even if it risks taking bites out of her business model. She could easily have played it safe in 2008 and not endorsed then-candidate Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, avoiding the permanent ire of her loyal white female fan base who either backed Hillary Clinton or skewed right in favor of McCain-Palin in the general election. Instead, she unapologetically put all her chips on the table and has found herself in recovery mode ever since. 

Still, Northwestern University’s Craig Garthwaite and the University of Maryland’s Timothy Moore concluded that in doing so, Winfrey delivered more than a million votes for Obama—which was crucial, considering that he beat Clinton by only 280,000. Those numbers suggest that Winfrey commands the kind of political draw that could prove useful in, say, a statewide U.S. Senate bid (Illinois, where she originally blew up, being a good place to start). A million votes averages out to about 20,000 voters in every state—or translates into even more votes in a state that’s friendly to the whole notion of a Sen. Winfrey. 

Her latest moves are by no measure reckless. They are calculated maneuvers that push the boundaries of her brand and experiment with embedded public-policy platforms: Profits from her Teavana-Starbucks partnership will support youth education; she’s also endorsed controversial charter school initiatives, dipping into fairly choppy and controversial waters; and she’s kept the South African girls’ leadership academy alive, despite road bumps and criticism. Notwithstanding that themes in personal enrichment and women’s empowerment frequently populate OWN narratives, Oprah is eager to make targeted policy points.

The question is whether she wants to make those points as a political candidate or as an influential partisan rainmaker. She didn’t stop with Obama, regularly cutting checks to state Democratic committees and the Democratic National Committee. She made a statement with a $10,000 check in 2012 to 21-year-old Stockton, Calif., City Council candidate and now Councilman Michael Tubbs, who is one of the nation’s youngest in that position. 

Last year’s special-election cycle found her putting money and fundraising time into then-Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker’s U.S. Senate bid. Nearly $30,000 dropped into the coffers of Booker and the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. Oprah had found herself another winner. In 2014 she has injected herself into yet another campaign, this time on the House level for nonprofit exec Laverne Chatman, Virginia’s 8th Congressional District candidate. That may have locked up a win for Chatman in the crowded Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Jim Moran. It’s a particularly significant development in a northern-Virginia district that’s 17 percent black and represents the wave of demographic change in a former Confederate capital and battleground state, once reliably red but now electing Democrats statewide.