What started as a trickle of puzzled queries on Oprah's message board when she touted Obama in October eventually turned into angry complaints from many white women when she barnstormed for him in January. They raged that America's long standing reigning queen of daytime talk TV had strayed way over the line. Oprah took note for a good reason. The loudest complaints came from middle-aged and middle class white women. They are the ones who have done as much as any other of Oprah's longtime regulars to make her fortune and keep her at the top of daytime talk show ratings. They are also the part of the voter segment that has done much to make Hillary Clinton's political fortunes and keep her competitive with Obama in the slog to the Democratic presidential nomination.
A legion of Oprah's handlers, show producers, magazine editors, TV moguls, syndicate heads, and media talking heads hotly deny that she's lost any of her luster because of Obama. Many of her women fans even jump to her defense and lambaste the women critics. Her ratings, cash spigot and superstar image still top that of most of her competitors in the TV business. It's also true that celebrities who get too political can tick off a lot of their fans. It's also an undeniable fact that Oprah has slipped in the ratings and the slip can be directly traced to her Obama support.
Within days after she touted Obama, a Gallup poll found that her favorable rating plunged by nearly ten percent and her unfavorable rating climbed by almost the same percent. As criticism mounted after her Obama foray to South Carolina, Oprah read the tea leaves. She hasn't made a public utterance about Obama since then.
But the issue is not really whether Clinton's staunch white female supporters are smacking down Oprah. The issue is Obama. He's opened wide the racial and gender sore between black and white women. In the days just before the South Carolina primary in January, nearly three times more black women said they'd back Clinton over him. The support for Clinton was greatest among lower income, working class black women. They admired Clinton as a woman, mother, and most importantly, many black women saw her as a strong advocate for health care and women's interests. White women, and that's middle class white women, backed her for pretty much the same reasons at the time.
Immediately after the Obama-Oprah roadshow, complete with shouting, and fawning fans, banks of TV cameras, and non-stop chatter and praise from the pundits, black women made a sharp volte face.
Polls show that the overwhelming majority of black women now exuberantly back Obama. Many of the black women before Obama's surge to the top who praised Hillary for fighting for women's issues now complain bitterly that she is standing in the way of a black man getting to the White House.
It is more than just Oprah's halo that stirs the change. For them, it is a matter of pride, accomplishment, and the sense that he fulfills their date with racial history making. Race simply trumps gender. But for older, middle class white women this is not the case. The issue is still gender and women's interests. Clinton was, and is, still seen as the most informed, effective and passionate advocate for women's issues. Having the first woman in the top spot in the White House is a matter of pride, accomplishment and the sense that she fulfills their date with gender history making.
The mini-Oprah backlash also tossed an ugly glare on another side of race. While Oprah has never given the faintest hint that her tout and early bankroll of Obama has anything to do with race, and is careful to make it clear that she backs him solely because of his competence and qualifications and that makes him the right presidential stuff. Yet the lurking suspicion is that there is more to it than that and that she is just as thrilled as many other blacks at the thought that an African-American can actually bag the presidency. This is not exactly a play of the race card. But for many skeptical voters, and obviously from the complaints of many of Oprah's one time devoted white female loyalists, it comes uncomfortably close to a veiled racial motive.
Oprah acknowledged the risk that she ran in cheerleading Obama. In a statement sent to ABCnews.com shortly after the mini-furor broke last year, she walked the thin tightrope between explanation and mollification. She admitted that she might offend some by "stepping out of my pew." She got it almost right. It's not that she stepped out of her pew that offends the women that tune her out. It's stepping into Obama's.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).