Larry Powell

Wilford Brimley is an accomplished actor and product pitchman. Barbara Streisand has a good voice and has sold millions of albums. Oprah is such a media powerhouse that no last name is needed. And all three want you to vote for their candidate for president.

When you go the polls Feb. 5 to vote in Alabama’s presidential primary, will that influence your decision?

Celebrity endorsements are nothing new, says Larry Powell, Ph.D., professor of communications studies and a former political consultant who will be analyzing Super Tuesday results on Birmingham area television station NBC13. In fact, they have been going on for decades. Powell says there is just one problem with them.

“In the past these endorsements have never worked. That goes for endorsements of any kind – celebrity, political – they rarely have an impact on votes.

“For example, Hollywood endorsements have typically gone to Democrats, and you see how effective those have been through the past few elections,” he says. Some celebrities have grasped that their endorsement isn’t helpful.

It’s widely known that actor George Clooney’s preference for the Democratic nomination is Barack Obama. Clooney, however, has told Obama he will only stump for him if Obama wants him to do so. Clooney told ABC News in December 2006, “I could do damage to Obama. So, I don’t necessarily know [that] saying I back him is helpful.”

Powell says Clooney’s thinking is right.

“It’s hard to gain any votes from an endorsement like Clooney’s, and it actually can hurt the candidate,” Powell says. “People could view it as if Obama is trying to win on the coattails of someone else’s reputation instead of on his own credentials.”

The O factor
And then there’s Oprah (Winfrey, just for the record). She hasn’t just endorsed Obama – she’s given speeches on the campaign trail and held fundraisers.

Why would she want to do that if celebrity endorsements don’t help a candidate? Because, Powell says, Oprah is a special case.

O, as she is sometimes called, may as well be known as Q – as in Q rating. The Q rating is a way to measure the familiarity and appeal of a brand, company, celebrity, cartoon character or television show. The higher the Q Score, the more well known and well thought of is the item or person. With apologies to Clooney, his Q rating is nowhere near Oprah’s.

“She’s not a normal celebrity,” Powell says. “She’s a cultural icon, and she has shown in the past that she has real marketing ability through her product endorsements and in her book clubs.

“This is an endorsement that might work for Obama. At the very least she has increased his credibility. She’s provided viewers with a reason to at least look at him. She’s helped legitimize his candidacy.”

It’s still not known how much Oprah’s endorsement is paying off for Obama. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey this past summer asking if political endorsements matter and specifically looked at Oprah’s. Nearly seven in 10 Americans (69 percent) said that if they heard Winfrey was supporting a presidential candidate it would not influence their vote.

Among the 30 percent who said they would be influenced by a Wynfrey endorsement, 15 percent said they would be more likely to vote for the candidate and 15 percent said they would be less likely to do so.

Still, 60 percent of those surveyed said they believed her support for Obama will help his candidacy. Only 3 percent thought it would hurt him, and 31 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference.

“Oprah is breaking new ground,” Powell says. “She’s never publicly endorsed a candidate. Truthfully, we don’t know about her. She’s a special case and one we will continue to watch with great interest.”

Why endorse?
So if endorsements typically don’t have an impact on voters, why seek them – and why give them?

Perhaps the biggest reason is money. Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, recently lent his support to Obama. Kerry raised more than $50 million for his presidential run, and he’ll likely give his donor list to Obama, Powell says.

Oprah hosted a sold-out fundraiser for Obama at her California estate this past summer. DreamWorks studio founders Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen hosted a fundraiser for Obama in February 2007 that netted him $1.3 million, according to the Los Angeles News.

“Money is certainly part of it because these celebrities have fan clubs with mailing lists and Kerry has his donor lists,” Powell says. “But Oprah’s endorsement also legitimized him in the African-American community and with women, which he needed to compete with Hillary Clinton.

“Kerry’s endorsement was more about timing. They were trying to say the momentum is coming his direction. There are many factors behind an endorsement other than money, but it is probably one of the biggest.”

There are great risks involved in endorsing as well, Powell says. Whither Kerry, for example, if Clinton happens to become president? Could Clooney’s box-office appeal take a hit if he campaigns for Obama?

“Kerry certainly understands the risk he’s taking with his endorsement,” Powell says. “Celebrities have risk, too. By endorsing a certain candidate they often wind up not helping the candidate win, but you did make everybody who supported the other candidate mad at you. That shows up time after time.”