In the midst of a presidential election reaching levels of intensity this summer normally reserved for September or October, two unlikely candidates with close ties to the University of Maryland threw their names into the mix last week -- except not as election candidates but as doctorate candidates.
Tim Moore and Craig Garthwaite, second- and third-year economics graduate students respectively, released a study last week that estimated media mogul Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama resulted in more than one million votes for Obama in the Democratic presidential primaries this past year.
Moore and Garthwaite, who focus their studies not on politics but primarily on health economics, thought the project would be creative and interesting but never imagined their names would be featured in the campaign coverage of several national media outlets.
"Craig and I were working for the same professor last year; we were just talking about Oprah and whether her effect on consumers might be the same as on voters," Moore said. "Once we started talking, we thought, 'Why not use the information on commercial products and use that as an analysis of voting behavior?'"
Though Garthwaite is on vacation this week, he explained in an e-mail his study's applicability.
"I think that, in general, the academic community has an unclear view of how endorsements affect politics," Garthwaite wrote in the e-mail. "To the extent that we can further the understanding of this in both the academic community and the general political arena, it is a positive thing."
Moore and Garthwaite analyzed Oprah's ability to influence consumers through subscriptions of her magazine and sales from her book club, and applied this same impact on voting behavior while factoring in numerous control variables such as age, race, income and unemployment.
"Even after controlling for all those things, we still find a relationship between Oprah's magazine circulation and Barack Obama's share of the votes," said Moore, who placed less emphasis on the reported exact number of votes from Winfrey's endorsement -- 1,015,559 -- than on the more general finding that Winfrey's endorsement had an enormous influence.
Economics chair Peter Murrell, who said he read Moore and Garthwaite's 59-page report and was "very convinced by the result," commented on the novelty of such a study.
"It's wonderful because two graduate students produced a very innovative study," Murrell said. "It's not only getting attention because of Obama and Oprah, but also because it's really new. Nobody's been able to get these type of results before on the effect of a celebrity endorsement."
Yet others in the political and economic community are not as impressed as Murrell. When Moore and Garthwaite sent the study to economics professors - including University of Chicago professor and Freakanomics co-author Steve Levitt - who proceeded to report the findings on their blogs, it generated much skeptical reaction.
For example, some people are not convinced that subscribers of O, The Oprah Magazine would not have voted for Obama regardless of Winfrey's endorsement, including CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider, who sarcastically barked on the air last week, "One-million-fifteen-thousand-five-hundred-fifty-nine votes she brought to Barack Obama. Well, that's a little absurd. How do you get specific to that degree?"
Economics professor Bill Evans, who advised Moore and Garthwaite when they worked for him as his research assistants before he left the university for the University of Notre Dame, said he warned the economists of the potential negative backlash from releasing the study, but still supported the research's credibilty.
"What's convincing in the paper is what they do to show it's really not magazine subscribers that's really driving this; it's really Oprah's endorsement," said Evans, who said Oprah's extremely popular celebrity status combined with this year's unusually long primary season enabled such groundbreaking statistical findings to take place.
And as for the mixed results from the public's discerning eye, Moore was able to take the reaction in stride.
"The difficulty in doing academic work is that nobody might pay attention to your results, so the interest from the media has been nice," Moore said.