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

Obviously Winfrey is no different from any other billionaire seeking clout through carefully plotted campaign contributions. And she’s clearly building a network of highly polished African-American elected officials who represent the new age of black politics. 

But there is a certain political flash and openness about her moves that pique interest from both admirers and detractors watching her consistently place winning campaign bets. Oprah looks good, and she’s still got many years ahead of her. Why waste them on talk shows in perpetuity? That she’s not quiet about her politics triggers suspicion that she’d be open to launching her own campaign rather than sit back quietly and move chess pieces. 

No one has yet asked about her political aspirations, thus feeding the impression that she’s merely content with history seeing her as a pop-culture icon who puts selfies on her magazine’s cover. It depends on whether she chooses to jump in after so many years of doing the same damn thing. If you had that much money and that kind of background, wouldn’t you consider a future in politics?

We can be confident that she has no appetite for or interest in a presidential campaign. Besides, according to YouGov, she’s got some pretty high national negatives with those white women who won’t let her forget 2008. But Gallup still found that she was the second-most-admired woman in the world in 2013—right behind Hillary Clinton and a point ahead of Michelle Obama. She’s still ranked (pdf) with President Obama and Clinton as the top three “progressives,” thereby giving her enough pull within Democratic Party ranks to run for an open Senate seat.   

Northwestern’s Garthwaite, however, is not convinced that she’s going to run for anything. “Winfrey has certainly increased her involvement in politics since 2008,” he said in an email response to The Root. “That being said, I haven’t seen any indications that she would want to be involved in politics directly.”

Yet one thing we know for sure is that she’s still on a quest for the next best stage to make her point—which, with each passing cycle, is looking more and more like the foundation for a campaign platform. Oprah’s incessant self-promotion and marketing machine should raise flags that she would be inclined to make some dramatic jump into the political horse race. My bet is that she does. She’s just trying to figure out the exact parameters of that play and how to go about it to ensure a win on the first try.    

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.