Lessons from Oprah’s Road Show

The Stevie Wonder song wasn't exactly seasonal. But his soundtrack of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"—blasted out on cue the moment Oprah Winfrey joined Barack and Michelle Obama to shake hands with fans (and supporters) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday night—carried its own very clear message.  It may be early December, but it's time for the caucus candidates in this early-primary state to seal the deal.

Obama's senior strategists believe they—and the rest of the field—will soon lose voters' attention as the holiday season shuts down political life several days before Christmas. They say Iowans are already weary of phone and email contact, and may well react negatively if the intrusions continue through the festive period. With the student population ready to head home, this is the time to make their closing arguments.

And that was how Oprah hit the road with her candidate of choice, spending the weekend shuttling from Iowa on Saturday to South Carolina and New Hampshire on Sunday. Not everyone thought she'd be an asset. Some wondered if anyone cared about the political commentary of a daytime TV star. Others pointed to one poll that suggested she would lower support for a presidential candidate. And still others wondered out loud if Oprah would even be comfortable talking politics instead of books.

But several days before Oprah took the stage, it was clear that the speculation was misplaced. The volume of tickets flowing out of the Obama campaign offices suggested something exceptional. On day one, Oprah pulled in more than 28,000 people to two events in Iowa. In Columbia, South Carolina another 30,000 showed up.

To put that into perspective, the Iowa crowds represent more than 20 per cent of all the voters who showed up to the Democratic caucuses four years ago. It's four times as many voters who turned up for the Jefferson-Jackson dinner last month, which used to be called the biggest event in the state's Democratic politics. That's the kind of turnout that money just can't buy.

Oprah herself was more than ready to engage in politics—and confront the patronizing pundits with a touch of humor. "Despite all of the talk, all speculation and the hype," she began in Des Moines, "I understand the difference between a book club or a free refrigerator—that was a nice refrigerator—I understand the difference between that, and this critical moment in our nation's history."

The moment was Oprah's constant refrain—both for Obama and Iowa's voters. "I know you hear people say that he should take a gradual approach to presidential leadership," she said in Cedar Rapids. "But I say this: no one is God. No one is God. We don't know what the future holds. So we must respond to the pressures of history when the moment strikes, and I do believe the moment is now. The moment is now."

As the campaigning wore on, Oprah seemed to enjoy her own moment more. Where she was more scripted and stiff at the first stop, she loosened up at the second. She picked up the microphone and walked around the podium to welcome Obama. She and Michelle Obama playfully punched each other when the candidate heaped praise on his wife. And when Obama promised to end not just the war in Iraq but "the mindset that got us into war in the first place," Oprah gave two thumbs up and cheered with the rest of the crowd.

Was it all good news for Obama? Not entirely. Some of the 18,500-strong crowd began to trickle out of the Hy-Vee hall in Des Moines once he started talking. That was reminiscent of Bill Clinton's first campaign swing with Hillary over the summer, although the crowd that day was a fraction of the size. Still, it confirmed the notion that some Iowans were more interested in the TV star than the Illinois senator.

Yet the lasting value to Obama's campaign may not be Oprah's message or the minds she might have swayed. The value was the unique chance to test and expand Obama's organization. His Iowa staff wanted to know who would show up to the events as well as who wouldn't. In political jargon, what was the flake rate of those who promised to come, but failed to turn up? If they flaked out, why did they flake? What else does the campaign need to do to seal the deal? 

Four years ago, another Internet-driven Washington outsider got another big endorsement. When Howard Dean won Al Gore's nod in late 2003, the media swooned en masse. But Dean never checked out how flakey his Iowa support was, and his staff were shocked that supposedly committed Iowans were no-shows on caucus night.

For now at least, Obama's supporters seem to be more solid: with 23,000 tickets issued, a respectable 18,500 people showed up for the Des Moines event. Oprah's weekend may be a poor guide to the caucus results in early January. But it does suggest that, in terms of organization, Obama's Iowa campaign is unlikely to end with a scream.