The case for an Oprah Winfrey presidency is nearly identical to the knock against her. She’s a celebrity, not a lawmaker; a billionaire businessperson with no political experience; a champagne-swilling member of the coastal elite. She is, in other words, the Democratic Donald Trump, if Donald Trump was smarter, self-made, more popular, and empathetic. Oprah—her renown has made the use of her surname unnecessary—is likely richer, too. So let’s take the idea of her candidacy seriously, for a moment, rather than dismiss the prospect out of hand. Lord knows Hollywood and the Obama political establishment are on board. Stedman Graham, Oprah’s longtime partner, has said she “absolutely would do it” if the American people want her to run.
The American people have, in fact, said they do not. When Quinnipiac last polled the idea in March 2017, just over one in five respondents said Oprah should run in 2020, and 69 percent said she should not. Beloved though she may be, voters clearly have reservations about her experience and her politics. At the same time, the Democratic Party is in desperate need of a personality that can rival Trump. That same month, when Public Policy Polling put Oprah in a matchup against Trump, she beat him 47 to 40 percent. Absent a concerted effort by the K.G.B., there’s no reason why the 46th president couldn’t be a black woman from rural Mississippi.
If you look at the electoral map, Oprah’s path to 270 electoral votes is surprisingly straightforward. Trump secured his electoral college victory with a little more than 75,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. All things being equal, he has almost certainly lost support in all three states. And it shouldn’t be difficult for Oprah to outperform Hillary Clinton, who lost rural areas in those states, and won counties with cities, by much worse margins than Barack Obama in 2012. In the cities in particular, Oprah could be expected to find much stronger support from African-Americans and young people, who make up a larger share of the vote.
Video: 11 Things to Know About Oprah Winfrey
To be clear, African-Americans and young voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary and remain some of the most reliable Democratic voters, but if you are losing rural areas by larger margins, you need urban voters to turn out at record levels. These voters didn’t vote for Trump; they merely stayed home, and while the reasons for their staying home may have been varied, they all amount to a lack of enthusiasm. To flip Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania into her column, Oprah would only need to reclaim half the 200,000 Obama voters who didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016. Even if she only boosted African-American turnout to Obama levels in the counties that contain Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland—something Oprah could undoubtedly do—she would secure an electoral college victory.
It’s not just that Oprah is an African-American woman. For decades, Oprah has cultivated an extraordinarily intimate relationship with an audience that captures the entire Obama coalition. That includes two key groups where Hillary wasn’t as strong as she could have been: non-college-educated white women and suburban white women. Put these voters together and Oprah can be competitive in every state Obama won in 2012. It’s hard to overstate how she can access that group of voters, which we know is a winning combination. No other prospective 2020 candidate can make as clear a claim.