Opinion: Oprah Winfrey gives Barack Obama the gift of opportunity


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DES MOINES -- It was, as they say in campaign vernacular, a ‘good event’ for Barack Obama. With daytime television host -- and one-woman media juggernaut -- Oprah Winfrey as the main drawing card, about 18,000 people jammed into the cavernous HyVee Center here -- an appearance you can read more about in our Web coverage today and in Sunday’s print editions.

But it’s worth noting that Oprah’s presence here this afternoon and in Cedar Rapids tonight, and then in South Carolina and New Hampshire on Sunday, could well afford Obama a breakthrough moment for his campaign. And not because Oprah leads people to make consumer choices, though there has been a lot of that.


What Oprah brought Obama was the physical presence of people so that he could make his own case. And he rose to the occasion with a forceful version of his stump speech before thousands of people, many of whom entered undecided or backing other candidates.

For all the importance of the Iowa caucuses in setting the course of both parties’ nomination fights, they are rather small events. In 2004, about 122,000 Democrats caucused in 1,781 precincts, an average of 68 Democrats per precinct. So come caucus night, the addition of just a handful of supporters in a single precinct here can turn it for a candidate -- especially in a race that polls show as a statistical tie among Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards.

And you can’t overlook the gender effects. Oprah’s audience -- as was the audience at the event today -- is largely female, a demographic that Hillary Clinton has been claiming as her own. That the Oprah seal of approval is on Obama’s forehead, and not Clinton’s, could shift some Iowa women, who tend to caucus at higher rates than men, from the ‘C’ column to the ‘O’ column.

So for all the rock concert atmosphere that ended here a few minutes ago -- it included a local R&B band made up of public school music teachers -- the most significant aspect is that this event and tonight’s will put Obama in front of an estimated 33,000 people, according to the campaign. That’s more than a fourth of the total Democratic turnout on caucus night four years ago.

The challenge for Obama is to convert the Oprah-generated enthusiasm in those crowds into political support come Jan. 3. Never mind Oprah’s refrigerators. She just gave her fellow Chicagoan the gift of a golden opportunity.

-- Scott Martelle