So Much for One Person, One Vote

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We live in a democratic society where each adult (except for some felons) gets one vote for president.

Except for Oprah. She gets one million votes.

A new study by Maryland economists Craig Garthwaite and Tim Moore argues that Oprah doesn’t just sell books, she influences votes too.

Using geographic variation in subscriptions to her magazine and the bump in book sales associated with her book club, Garthwaite and Moore estimate that Oprah’s endorsement of Barack Obama was worth one million votes to him in the primary election.

According to their numbers, Hillary Clinton would have gotten more votes than Obama if Oprah hadn’t endorsed him. I suspect that Oprah’s endorsement was especially influential because Hillary was a woman, but Oprah didn’t endorse her.

Perhaps Oprah should think of taking a more direct approach next time around: Winfrey for president in 2012?


Jena

M Todd I think it's pretty petty of you to dismiss Oprah overcoming extreme to adversity to give $300 million of her hard earned money to charity as a PR stunt. First of all, if all her donations were publicity motivated we would know about them, however the only Oprah philanthropy most people are aware of is the $40 million school she built in South Africa; she's been pretty quiet about the remaining quarter billion she's given away over the years which debunks your assertion that she's only gives for publicity. True the cars Pontiac gave away was an attempt to get publicity, but that was just a fun ratings stunt and has nothing to do with the HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS Oprah herself has given away out of her own pocket (according to Business Week).

Even if Oprah were to get publicity for all her charity, it still wouldn't compensate her for the extreme expense in time, money, and stress her ambitious acts of philanthropy burden her with. And the reason Oprah went public with the school she was building was because she wanted to send a public message that even the poorest black girls in Africa have value and she was hoping to inspire others to invest in the education of African girls as Madonna has now decided to do after seeing Oprah's example. If Oprah's primary motive was publicity she would have built the school in the United States where her target audience is. It may come as a shock to you, but even billionaires have other interests besides making more money. At some point you realize that all the money and power in the world means nothing unless you use to have longterm impact on the world.

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M Todd

Jena, I stand by my statements. Oprah is a great business person and in this free market is worth whatever anyone wants to pay her.

She is not the only one to overcome racism, poverty, etc., but she is one of the few that has documented each accomplishment by a PR firm. She does not give one dime without sending out a PR release first or promoting it on her show. I am sure the people helped don't care Oprah is using them to gain more fame and wealth, they are still helped.

The definition of giving is to do something without monetary or material compensation, spending money and receiving something of value in return is called investing. Oprah does not give she invests in the Oprah brand. Here "giving" only produces more future goodwill and earnings.

Also, the 300 million dollar figure I find hard to believe is out of pocket since a lot of celebrity giving numbers are based on the supposed value of their personal appearance or celebrity endorsement fees not real money.

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M Todd

I think it is great that Oprah gives money to charities. But, I still believe her motivation is to support her brand. That's OK with me since I do not give her any of her money. I don't watch her show, buy her books or even care what she thinks.

I just think it is funny anyone even cares what most celebrities think. I remember when people cared what the experts think not what Hollywood thinks. Their job is to entertain. Outside of that they do not have any use.

Erech Apatyim

As was pointed out already, either you don't count influence on other people as votes (in which case Oprah has just one vote) or you do count them, in which case Oprah is hardly the "only" one with more than one vote. With so many people easy to influence by advertising, the US system is closer to being one-dollar-one-vote than one-person-one-vote.

cecilia

Oprah gave the Commencement speech at Stanford this last spring. She said that the most important action these Stanford graduates could do was service to humanity. And that has been a consistent message for her. Everyone can be as snide as they want about her, but I would rather hear such a message from a celebrity than the usual BS from most celebrities about power, status, money and looks. Go Oprah!

Brian

Why is this the only endorsement being talked about? I can only imagine that race is playing a huge factor. We don't mind the NY Times endorsing candidates, or Carolyn Kennedy, or anyone else, because we understand it to be part of the process and REALLY like it when someone influential endorses who we want to win. But a powerful black woman endorsing a black man for president and getting results? Oh no! What do THEY think THEY are doing? Clearly this has gotten people panties in a bunch and it demonstrates the racial double-standard that still deeply permeates our society.

John

Is it conceivable that the title is in jest and several of you are overreacting due to some perceived bias that - whether it exists or not - you WANT the author to have so he tumbles to your level?

At no point does Dr. Levitt take a position; he only reports what Garthwaite and Moore claim.

M Tood

Jena, again Oprah is a great business person, you throw around this figure of 300 million and at the same time say she gives most without PR. If that is the case how do you know the figure?

Oprah may give because she wants to give to causes, but she does so with great fan-fair and PR because she knows its an investment for future earnings. I believe she gives for the number one reason to support her brand which is Oprah.

As for being compensated for her time, I do not think that is a problem. The number one asset of any celebrity is image and perception. That is their job, so the fact she spends her time and money improving that image to make billions more does not make me worry about her "stress" or "burden."

The original subject of the blog is why do people consider her endorsement. I do not consider any celebrity endorsement of any value, since they are paid large sums of money to pretend they know something, when in fact they only know what is written for them.

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Jena

You can dismiss Oprah as self-promoting but the fact of the matter is she overcame racism, sexism, weightism, poverty, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, drugs, illegitimacy and a thyroid problem to become the most philanthropic performer in the history of show business and the most philanthropic African American ever. Business Week reports that she has personally given over $300 million of her own hard earned money to charity (and that doesn't include the money she raises or corporate giveaways by Pontiac). So any positive attention she's lucky enough to sometimes get, she has earned her weight in gold for, countless times over.

M Todd

I just do not get it? Oprah is placed on a pedestal as some sort of saint. Why? She is a great business person and great promoter of her number one product.... herself.

I cannot think of one thing she has done that has not been self serving, self seeking or self promoting. Every dollar she gives in the name of "giving back" is returned three fold in good will and future revenue. She is a brand that invest a relatively few dollars to see a big return.

I love the car give away. GM paid for the cars, they paid her for the time to promote them and she gets all the credit as if she went to the local dealership and bought them herself. The biggest winner was Oprah.

Don't get me wrong, she is a great marketer, but I would no more consider her opinion for president than I would one of the sappy books she promotes. To me she is the female version of Trump only her hair is nicer.

G.O.B.

I wouldn't equate an endorsement from Limbaugh to an endorsement from Oprah. Limbaugh is preaching to the choir when it comes to political ideology. Oprah's audience runs the full political spectrum. My gut tells me her audience is more open to new ideas when they come from Oprah's mouth, so her influence in SWITCHING votes may be much larger than Limbaughs. I'd expect Oprah to have less influence in the general election though since it's a much starker difference between McCain and Obama.

Adam

I guess those 1,000,000 don't live in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Ohio, etc.

mave

Conjecture? On the Freakonomics blog? NO!! Really?!?

/sarcasm

Cate

Oprah would never run for president ... it would be a demotion!

Steve

...and Karl Rove and Rupert Murdoch, etc. do too.....

Carol

I suspect she delivered far more than a million votes. Her latest book club pick "A New Earth" sold four million copies after she endorsed it. I personally started paying much closer attention to Obama after she campaigned for him, and eventually he won me over.

Mike

Oprah for president? Why do we need another politician afraid to talk about real issues? When was the last time Oprah led any useful policy discusions on science, enviornment, economics, foreign policy, energy etc?

She panders to those who like to stick their head in the sand. Why worry about what's going on in the world around you when you can listen to Dr. Phil talk about relationship advice. Or hear about the latest non-fiction Book Club book that's actually fiction.

Perhap's an intelligent politician could use her as a medium to reach the voters who don't like listening to real issues. Hopefully that intelligent politician is more like Obama and less like Cheney...

Chris

Isn't this kind of the point of endorsements? To gain more votes? How is this news? That its a large number of votes I guess.

Can we put this into perspective? Is it bigger than Limbaugh? Is it bigger than the New York Times endorsement? Probably not.

Mr. Levitt, I can come to several conclusions as to why Oprah is being singled out, with a very leading title I might add, none of which are flattering. I'm really disappointed, not because I'm an Oprah fan, but until quite recently, was a Levitt fan.

Matthew

#7: There is more truth to that than most people realize. Why would a person capable of earning 8 figures a year between salary, options and bonuses want to be in a position ensured to be hated by various people around the world and in our own country, accompanied by the constant fear of assassination and public scrutiny. Yes, there are some serious perks to being POTUS but some pretty heavy security burdens stick with the person once they leave office that don't ever go away.

Alex

I take issue with this post.

First:

>We live in a democratic society where each adult

>(except for some felons) gets one vote for president.

>

>Except for Oprah. She gets one million votes.

No, she does not get one million votes, or anything like that.

She has endorsed Barack Obama. Endorsements have been a part of our political system for a very very long time. Some endorsements mean a lot, and some mean rather little. Personally, I believe that they usually matter rather little these days, but there are still some that make a big difference. For example, the New York Times editorial board has incredible sway in down ballot races (i.e. the ones that don't get a lot of publicity) in the New York City region.

This paper says that Oprah delivered 3% of the voting electorate with her endorsement (1 million/35 million)? Is this the largest impact that and endorsement has had on a race? How much did Bill Clinton's endorsement of Hillary matter? What % of the vote can the NYT editorial board sway? What's the context here?

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Second:

What is the methodology? Is this a standard methodology, or something new?

It is something new, and something that lacks even facial validity. Book sales or magazine subscriptions are not a strict either-or decision. It is not at all clear that influence to "try this, too" would be the same as "if you only get one chance, do this one."

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Third:

Data.

I did not read the whole paper carefully -- which is why my comments about methodology are so sparse. But the data plugged into their tests is from the National Journal.

That's a joke. The National Journal has claimed in 2004 and 2008 that the dems nominated the most liberal member of the senate. That defies logic. One would think that the Democratic nominee would be roughly average, within his/her party. Extremists vote a bit more, but many voters worried about electability. The wider the electorate, the closer to average one would expect their preference to me. So, their outcome lacks facial validity.

But the National Journal's methodology is also suspect. They cherry pick votes that they claim will identify best what they are looking for. There is no consistent/objective standard to rule these decisions. If I can cherry pick my data, I can prove anything you want.

But if Obama is NOT the most liberal member of the senate -- and he's clearly not -- the data they use falls apart.

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If this post were about how silly some "timely" papers are, that would be great. If it were about how an interesting methodology developed from a silly but timely question, that would be great.

But you've linked to a silly paper based on the abstract, and no caveat about "I'm not sure about their methodology" or "make of the actual paper what you will."

I've a problem with that.

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