She’s not running, but her potential speaks volumes about 2018.
After her rousing speech at the Golden Globes this last week, the Internet began whispering about the possibility of Oprah Winfrey running against President Trump in 2020. As they are wont to do, those whispers built upon themselves until they gained the solidity of fact. You soon started having celebrities and political operatives swear that they’d back her if she’d toss her hat into the ring. Others began levying criticisms for her lack of political experience. Others began commenting on how weird it is for a democracy to be as comfortable as it is with foisting the nation’s highest public office on rich, charismatic celebrities.
Ultimately, it’s a whole lot of hooplah for something that isn’t going to happen. Oprah has shown no indication that she wants to run for president. At the moment, all this really boils down to is a few of her confidantes recommending the idea to her and a few political insiders talking in circles. It’s amazing that we as a species actually manage to get anything done with all the time we spend reifying rumors.
Literally hundreds of thousands of man hours wasted on this beautifully messy amalgam of hopes, dreams, and memes.
And this isn’t like the game Jeb Bush played pre-2016 where he outwardly claimed to be uninterested in the presidency while subtly testing the waters and developing the necessary fundraising apparatus to mount a run. There is no movement on Oprah’s part — only on the part of her fans. Well, the fans and the pollsters. Which is where we come in.
“Oprah’s hypothetical victory is just another, albeit small, bit of evidence for [a Democratic wave in 2018]. Another nail in the coffin for those who think that Republicans will hold their seats.”
One doesn’t necessarily think of polling as a fun, cheeky profession in-tune with pop-culture and the national zietgiest but pollsters know how to have a good time. Which is why Marist Polling decided to insert a hypothetical challenger to President Trump to provide a litmus of how his performance is being received. And never in a million years would you guess who they put it in. Never ever.
Right, so, the selection was more than just a little obvious; they pitted President Trump against Winfrey. The results of the pairing weren’t too terribly shocking either: She beat him by 11 points, comfortably outside the ~3% margin of error.
So contrary to President Trump’s assertion that he would defeat Winfrey in a contest, the limited empirical evidence available shows that she would trounce him in the popular vote. That’s striking. Not because it seriously portends to President Trump’s chances in 2020 — there is a lot of time between here and now; it’s worthless to make predictions at this juncture — but because it says a lot about his party’s chances in the midterms later this year.
You may have seen people talk about the idea of the 2018 being a Democratic wave. The notion that the mid-terms are going to bring in a whole lot of Democratic members of congress at the expense of Republican-held seats. Indeed, this influx may be so large that it may imperil the Republican’s majority standing. Analysts from numerous outlets have discussed how it’s probably going to happen. In fact, it’s actually one of my three political predictions for 2018 — because why not stake what little credibility I have on a probabilistic endeavor? Oprah’s hypothetical victory is just another, albeit small, bit of evidence for that theory. Another nail in the coffin for those who think that Republicans will hold their seats.
The fact that Oprah would beat the President in a head-to-head is emblematic of the level of esteem the public holds for him. Which is to say, not too terribly much. To his credit, his approval rating has been relatively consistent since he entered office. The problem, however, is that it’s been consistently below 40% since May. Although he may tweet that pundits see his approval as comparable to President Obama’s at this juncture, the objective fact of the matter is that it has been historically low for a president in their first year.
The fact that so many people would be willing to vote for Oprah over President Trump speaks volumes. Especially considering that the vast preponderance of them (54%) don’t actually want her to run.
“Even though Oprah isn’t running for President, she’d win if a hypothetical election were held today. And the feelings underlying that fact are probably going to be made manifest in those very real elections this November.”
The result is function of both Oprah’s popularity but, critically, President Trump’s unpopularity. The latter has ramifications for his party’s success in the midterms. Political scientist Eric R.A.N. Smith utilized a model formulated by fellow political scientists Michael Lewis-Beck and Tom Rice which looks to see how well a party can be expected to do in the midterms. Now, Lewis-Beck and Rice’s model does not contain a variable based on how well the President fares against Oprah. (Alas, such is the folly of science — not looking at the questions that really matter). It does look at approval however, which is the latent factor underlying Oprah’s hypothetical victory. Smith estimated that the Democrats may gain 38 seats in the House of Representatives. There’s obviously a pretty large error bar around those estimates, but he’s not the only one to suggest losses around the 35–40 range. Republicans can only afford to lose 21 if they want to maintain their majority status.
(That being said, we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves about the predictions of a legislative wave. Notice that I’ve limited my predictions to the House. The Senate, as Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight and Smith shows, is an entirely different beast. In fact, it’s possible for the Senate to gain Republican advantage even if the House goes blue because of the states up for grabs).
Of course, there’s more than just the Oprah factor that’s driving these conclusions. There’s the fact that economic growth is present but slower than in 2014 (although a bit faster than 2015–2016). There’s the fact that, historically, the president’s party tends to lose ground in the legislature in the subsequent midterms after they’re elected.There’s the fact that Democrats have been doing very well in the special elections we’ve had so far. There’s the fact that Democrats are resoundingly beating Republicans in generic congressional ballots. It just adds up.
None of those factors alone signal a wave — I’ve already written about how I’m not the biggest fan of the generic ballot, for example, because of how gerrymandering and differences in district magnitude muddy their applicability — but there comes a point where the practical impact of error collapses under the weight of the evidence. We hit that point a while ago. Oprah’s just adding icing on the cake.
Even though Oprah isn’t running for President, she’d win if a hypothetical election were held today. And the feelings underlying that fact are probably going to be made manifest in those very real elections this November.🔷
(This story was first published in The Blog!)