If Oprah Winfrey wants to be the next president of the United States, she could follow the playbook written by the man she would be running to replace: President Trump.
"An Oprah boomlet would be one of the more plausible celebrity boomlets, in my opinion," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Not only is she enormously famous, but also substantive and popular."
There are dueling reports about whether this is something Winfrey is seriously considering. But Trump, who was once thought unlikely to run and had vacillated on whether to jump in during previous cycles, overwhelmed a field of 17 more politically experienced Republican presidential candidates, dominating the media coverage from the moment he took the Trump Tower escalator downstairs to announce his campaign in June 2015.
Winfrey, whose talk at the Golden Globes fueled a new round of presidential speculation, could replicate this on the Democratic side, where there is currently no clear-cut frontrunner and the field is already threatening to be larger than the GOP’s in 2016.
With Hillary Clinton likely sidelined, there are few Democrats who could compete with Winfrey’s 90-plus percent name recognition. Two who could come close, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, are, like Clinton, septuagenarians. Winfrey would be a comparatively spry 65-year-old at the beginning of the campaign, turning 66 in January 2020.
"The hype around the candidacy of Oprah shows the civil war brewing in the Democratic Party and the left-wing base," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. "Many of their leaders are old and out of touch and still smarting from their crushing defeat in 2016 and scrambling to figure out how to stay relevant in the new populist era of politics."
A divided and obscure Democratic field could be easy pickings for Winfrey, allowing her to win primaries and caucuses with plurality support, like Trump did across the aisle in the early stages of the 2016 contest.
The veteran daytime talk show host and media mogul is wealthy enough to self-finance a campaign, but like Trump she would not need to tap too deeply into her personal fortune: She would get a massive amount of free media coverage that even relatively well-known rivals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would find difficult to keep up with.
Consider that, during the 2016 campaign, Trump amassed $5.6 billion in earned media, according to figures compiled by the firm mediaQuant. That’s more than Clinton and Sanders, as well as Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, combined.
In the critical months before the election, Trump’s broadcast earned media edge over Clinton was $134 million and his online earned media advantage was an eye-popping $1 billion. This allowed Trump to spend far less money on traditional advertising than a typical major-party presidential candidate and also make the money he did spend have a bigger impact.
Winfrey would be able to do the same. She would likely have the additional benefit of her earned media being more positive than Trump’s, judging from NBC’s tweets and her own willingness to say the press is under siege during the current administration.
"Star power is a helpful attribute for a president to have," Kenneth T. Walsh, author of the book Celebrity in Chief: A History of the Presidents and the Culture of Stardom, told the Washington Examiner before Trump’s inauguration. "If harnessed properly, star power can draw positive attention to a president, increase a president's popularity, and focus the public and the media on his or her agenda."
"Star power also can create curiosity about a presidential candidate and give a candidate the opportunity to stir up and maintain media and public interest," Walsh added, pointing to the success of Trump and Ronald Reagan.
"She already occupies the leadership space in the public's mind," Stutzman said. "IEasier to run for office from that perception than as an action movie star or a cariacture boss on a reality TV show."
That’s why you have political observers ranging from former White House press secretary Sean Spicer to 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia describing Winfrey as a formidable presidential candidate even though she has never run for office before.
"We welcome the challenge, whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else," current White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday.
Trump recognized this himself when he talked about her as a possible running mate when he briefly flirted with seeking the Reform Party’s presidential nomination in 1999.
“Oprah. I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice,” Trump said in an interview with Larry King. “I’ll tell you, she’s really a great woman. She’s a terrific woman. She’s somebody that’s very special.”
If Trump had run in 2000, he would have positioned himself as a centrist candidate running against populist and nationalist conservative Patrick Buchanan.
Winfrey also encouraged Trump to muse about running for president on her show in 1988. “I do get tired of seeing what’s happening with this country, and if it got so bad, I probably wouldn’t want to rule it out totally, because I really am tired of seeing what’s happening with this country, how we’re really making other people live like kings, and we’re not,” he said, previewing themes that would dominate his 2016 campaign.
There are downsides to running for president as a celebrity. Right now, Winfrey has fans across the political spectrum. That would almost certainly change once she declared her party affiliation and issue positions, as was the case with Trump, who was once better known for wealth and glamour than Breitbart-style politics.
“Ivanka’s sole purpose inside the Trump administration is preserving the Trump brand,” said a third Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It isn’t working so well.”
Stylistically, Winfrey might be closer to former President Barack Obama, with a knack for inspirational speeches. In the 2008 campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., unsuccessfully ridiculed Obama as a celebrity like Britney Spears.
"He's the biggest celebrity in the world," the narrator said of Obama in a McCain ad that ran in 11 battleground states. "But is he ready to lead?"
Obama won, keeping Republicans out of the White House until they could find a celebrity to lead them.