In January, after she gave a stirring politically tinged speech at the Golden Globe Awards, Oprah Winfrey had to confront the fact that a lot of people suddenly wanted her to run for president. It was easy to see why the idea animated parts of the left. Oprah, like Donald Trump, is a billionaire entertainer who built an empire on her personal brand, someone whose celebrity and status as a political outsider might make her an intriguing foil for the president. Stoking the enthusiasm was the TV host’s longtime romantic partner, Stedman Graham, who told the Los Angeles Times the night of her speech that a presidential run is “up to the people. She would absolutely do it.”
In fact, Oprah insists, she is not going to do it. Since January, she has repeatedly said she is not interested in Trump’s job. But despite these denials, there is one place where the Oprah 2020 campaign is still being waged on her behalf: Facebook.
For the past five months, as many as 7 million Facebook users have seen advertisements from the National Republican Congressional Committee asking a simple question: “Who would you vote for in the 2020 Election? President Trump or Oprah Winfrey. VOTE NOW.” The words hang over a six-second video of a split screen of Donald Trump, tinted in red, next to Oprah Winfrey, tinted in blue, with the question “Trump or Oprah?” in animated white letters spanning the top. Most of these users, let’s hope, see the ad as more of a taunt than a realistic query. But however people interpret it, something about the juxtaposition of Trump with a self-made and massively influential black, female billionaire is working wonders for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Since the end of May—when Facebook first started sharing data on political ads—the political action committee has bought the ad more than 430 times.
The NRCC knows how to use social media in a campaign. It’s spent $272,000 on Facebook ads this election cycle, more than any other explicitly Republican PAC, according to research conducted by a team led by Damon McCoy at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. The NRCC is the third biggest political ad spender in the country on Facebook ads, trailing just behind Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and a shadowy conservative operation called News for Democracy. The ad that pits Trump against Oprah accounts for a sizable portion of the NRCC’s spending: The group has spent between $32,000 and $126,000 to post them. Unfortunately, Facebook’s advertising-transparency portal only offers a broad range of what was spent per ad, and the more an entity spends the bigger that range gets. One ad that potentially reached 1 million people cost the PAC between $5,000 and $10,000 dollars, according to the Facebook data.
Why is the NRCC making ads about Oprah? Its job, after all, is to get Republicans elected to the House of Representatives, which it does through attack ads on TV and some help online. But the purpose of the Oprah ad appears to be to help grow the PAC’s lists of voters—the same as lots of its ads on Facebook. The NRCC is also running an ad with a hammer and sickle that warns, “The socialists are running for office,” as well as an ad featuring Obama that asks, “Do you think Obama is trying to interfere with the upcoming election?” Facebook’s advertising portal can tell us a bit about how the PAC is targeting these spots: The Oprah ads are mostly showing to men, and they appear to have been shown far more in Texas and Florida than in other states.
While these ads are Facebook posts that the NRCC has paid to give an extra boost, the Facebook portal doesn’t reveal how much users have engaged with them through likes, comments, and shares. But the “Trump or Oprah?” video is also posted on the NRCC’s Facebook page as a regular, unpaid post. There, it’s easier to get a sense of how engaging (or enraging) some Facebook users, presumably Republican ones, find the idea of Oprah trying to take the presidency from Trump. That post has garnered 39,000 comments and has been shared more 3,000 times since it was posted in May.
I contacted the NRCC to ask why it is buying hundreds of the Oprah ads and never heard back. But considering how long the ad has been running and how much the PAC has spent on it, it’s clear the NRCC has realized this is a message that simply clicks. The idea that Oprah could run against Trump seems to stir a palpable amount of anger, contempt, conversation, and fear among conservatives. Maybe the notion that a celebrity president could only be vulnerable to another celebrity isn’t so crazy, after all.