The Oprah Effect
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Politics & Elections Apr 2, 2012

The Oprah Effect

Celebrity endorsement of political candidates can make a difference at the polls.

Based on the research of

Craig Garthwaite

Timothy Moore

It is not an uncommon sight: a political candidate, standing on a stage with some rock star. They smile, wave, and clap each other on the back.

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Many peo­ple run­ning for office go out of their way to secure these celebri­ty endorse­ments. In the 2012 Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry race, for exam­ple, Mitt Rom­ney has racked up the sup­port of Don­ald Trump, Kid Rock, and Cindy Craw­ford. But whether or not these endorse­ments have an effect has always been an open ques­tion. So Craig Garth­waite, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and strat­e­gy at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, and Tim­o­thy Moore, a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, decid­ed to take a look.

The effect of celebri­ty endorse­ments has in the past been a con­tro­ver­sial issue. On one side are pun­dits and aca­d­e­mics who say that celebri­ty endorse­ments have no effect what­so­ev­er. On the oth­er side are peo­ple who run cam­paigns. For these peo­ple, time is a very valu­able resource and they often expend a lot of effort to line up endorse­ments with celebrities.

We have this sort of con­trast­ing set of opin­ions that we haven’t been able to rec­on­cile,” Garth­waite says. But, it seems odd that these cam­paigns could be some­how sys­tem­i­cal­ly irra­tional and attempt to get sup­port from peo­ple that have absolute­ly no effect.”

Some­one obvi­ous­ly had to be wrong here, Garth­waite thought. And the researchers’ intu­ition point­ed to the aca­d­e­mics, that celebri­ty endorse­ments do have an effect on vot­ers. If endorse­ments affect all kinds of behav­ior, why would we think that they wouldn’t affect vot­ing behav­ior?” asks Garth­waite. How­ev­er, he explains, it is gen­er­al­ly dif­fi­cult to mea­sure the impact of an endorsement.

If endorse­ments affect all kinds of behav­ior, why would we think that they wouldn’t affect vot­ing behav­ior?” asks Garthwaite.

Elec­tions are a one-shot game,” he says. The sit­u­a­tion is usu­al­ly like this: there are a few can­di­dates, and one or more may have a celebri­ty endorse­ment before the elec­tion. Then the elec­tion hap­pens and some­body wins. But less cer­tain is whether the same per­son would have won with­out the endorse­ment and how many votes the endorse­ment was worth.

One-of-a-kind Oppor­tu­ni­ty
Garth­waite and Moore found a unique sit­u­a­tion in the 2008 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, how­ev­er. In this elec­tion, TV host Oprah Win­frey endorsed then-Sen­a­tor Oba­ma as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. The mega-celebri­ty had nev­er pub­licly backed a can­di­date before. She is also extreme­ly pop­u­lar, with a high amount of influence.

To gauge Oprah’s pop­u­lar­i­ty and how it var­ied geo­graph­i­cal­ly, Garth­waite and Moore start­ed by find­ing the num­ber of sub­scribers to O, the Oprah Mag­a­zinewho lived in each coun­ty in the Unit­ed States. They then com­pared the num­ber of sub­scribers in a giv­en area to Obama’s elec­toral suc­cess in that same region. After con­trol­ling for a wide range of socioe­co­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic fac­tors — sex, edu­ca­tion, race, and income, to name a few — the authors found that Oba­ma did bet­ter in areas with more O subscribers.

In the study, the researchers want­ed to make sure that they were pick­ing up an effect of the endorse­ment, and not just an under­ly­ing pref­er­ence for Oba­ma that was cor­re­lat­ed with pref­er­ences for Oprah. To check they were only detect­ing Oprah’s influ­ence on vot­ers, Garth­waite and Moore looked for geo­graph­ic vari­a­tion in O sub­scribers and in Pres­i­dent Obama’s past elec­toral expe­ri­ences. In par­tic­u­lar, they stud­ied his 2004 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry race for the U.S. Sen­ate, which is the only mul­ti­coun­ty race he was involved in pri­or to run­ning for president.

We find no rela­tion between the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Oprah and his coun­ty-lev­el out­comes in that elec­tion. That sug­gests that there’s real­ly not some under­ly­ing pref­er­ence that’s dri­ving this, but it’s the endorsement’s effect,” Garth­waite says.

We find that if any­thing, the types of peo­ple that read these mag­a­zines would be expect­ed in the absence of the endorse­ment to sup­port then-Sen­a­tor Clin­ton in this elec­tion, and not then-Sen­a­tor Oba­ma. So we don’t think that there’s some sort of inher­ent pref­er­ence for then-Sen­a­tor Oba­ma among the peo­ple that read these types of magazines.”

Over­all, they cal­cu­lat­ed that Oprah’s endorse­ment was worth about 1 mil­lion votes for Oba­ma, which is a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber, Garth­waite says. In pol­i­tics, if you could guar­an­tee that you could turn a mil­lion more peo­ple towards your can­di­date you’d be hap­py,” he adds. The oth­er thing you have to remem­ber is that this was a real­ly close elec­tion. So in that sense I think that a mil­lion votes is a pret­ty impor­tant number.”

Oba­ma beat out Hillary Clin­ton by only about 278,966 votes in the states they used in their sam­ple, Garth­waite points out in the paper. Oprah’s endorse­ment had an effect on the 2008 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, but whether oth­er celebri­ties would also have had an effect is less clear. We can’t obvi­ous­ly test that in the paper,” Garth­waite says. The ques­tion we real­ly have to ask is whether the fact that Oprah is such a pow­er­ful celebri­ty means that the mag­ni­tude of her endorse­ment is greater than oth­ers’, or if it means that only her endorse­ment, and no one else’s, would have an effect.”

Gaug­ing the Celebri­ty Effect
If this were sim­ply a ques­tion of mag­ni­tude, that would mean Oprah’s endorse­ment would be worth a mil­lion votes and some­one else’s, depend­ing on their pop­u­lar­i­ty, would be worth maybe 100,000, for exam­ple. I think that the effect is increas­ing in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the celebri­ty, which means less­er celebri­ties would still have an effect. On the oth­er hand, there could be a non­lin­ear rela­tion­ship, but that would be a more dif­fi­cult sto­ry to tell,” Garth­waite says.

But their find­ing, that Oprah did real­ly have an effect on how many votes Oba­ma received in the 2008 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, may or may not con­vince every­one about the val­ue of celebri­ty endorsements.

I think it’s changed some people’s minds in that we def­i­nite­ly have an exam­ple here where there was a strong endorse­ment,” Garth­waite says. But whether or not this will con­vince pun­dits is anyone’s guess, he adds. I think one unique fea­ture of the pun­dit­ry in the Unit­ed States that we’ve seen over the past three years is that facts don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly seem to change their minds,” he adds.

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight

Vot­ers Love Win­ners (And So Do Endorsers): How endorsers can gain the upper hand

First Among Equals? Prime bal­lot posi­tion improves a candidate’s chances of win­ning office

All Pol­i­tics Is Cul­tur­al: Cul­tur­al not eco­nom­ic vocab­u­lar­ies sep­a­rate lib­er­als and conservatives

Featured Faculty

Craig Garthwaite

Associate Professor of Strategy, Director of Health Enterprise Program, HEMA

About the Writer

Leigh Krietsch Boerner is a science and health writer based in Bloomington, Indiana.

About the Research

Garthwaite, Craig and Timothy Moore. Forthcoming. “The Role of Celebrity Endorsements in Politics: Oprah, Obama, and the 2008 Democratic Primary.” The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization.

Read the original

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