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Divide and be conquered

The GOP relied on talk radio to carry its water, but votes are worth more than ratings
By BY STEVEN STARK  |  November 14, 2008


What with their decisive loss in the presidential election and the party's distinct minority status in the House and Senate, the Republicans could be forgiven for being pessimistic. Things do indeed look bad for their Grand Old Party.

Actually, it's even worse than they think.

Since the dawn of the 20th century, guess how many times the incumbent party has failed to succeed itself in the White House after one term. Once in 11 tries — in 1976 when Reagan took out Jimmy Carter. Statistically at least, the odds are not good for a Republican in 2012.

On top of that, counting last Tuesday, the Republicans have now failed to win the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections. And in the fifth, they barely got by John Kerry. So despite appearances (owing to Washington's high neocon profile), it's actually been 20 years since the GOP was a dominant force in presidential politics.

There are plenty of theories circulating about how the GOP got itself into this mess, but one prime suspect clearly isn't getting its due — conservative talk radio.

The partisans will howl in protest, but while certainly not the only culprit, the relentless stream of invective from the right side of the dial has undeniably been a major contributor to the GOP's demise. It's no coincidence that the Republican eclipse began just when conservative talk radio found its audience.

Rush Limbaugh's show was syndicated in 1988. It's been a steady climb toward the top of the ratings for him and his imitators ever since, but pretty much downhill for the party they all support. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and the others are enormously successful media performers and they may have single-handedly rescued AM radio from financial oblivion over the past two decades.

But while wildly popular with their devotees, these partisan bloviators are enormously unpopular with the electorate as a whole. Limbaugh, for example, has about a two-to-one unfavorable rating nationally, according to a Rasmussen Poll.

What's more, these figures are all rabble-rousers — high intensity, "hot" performers whose appeal is based on energizing their base. That's all well and good for radio — it works, after all. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that it's a terrible way to structure the energy of a mainstream political movement that seeks to win more than 50 percent of the national vote.

The pet politician of many of these talk-show hosts may be Ronald Reagan. But Reagan, himself a radio performer, had exactly the opposite media persona. He was genial, low key, calm, and measured. He was a political version of the pre-Kennedy-era radio and TV host Arthur Godfrey, whose folksy, homespun style would be an on-air anachronism today.

Both Reagan and Godfrey, of course, grew up in a different media age. With far fewer outlets, the key back then was to attract a mass audience — just like a presidential candidate.

Today, in a media universe of thousands of choices, the key to economic success is to find your intense minority and play to it for all it's worth. But divisiveness is as profitable in radio as it is fatal to a mass political movement.

One can see this tension being played out even now. Sarah Palin energizes the talk-radio base and is already being pushed as the inevitable next GOP leader. But Palin — like most talk-radio champions — is enormously divisive. Good for ratings; bad for politics.

The Republicans do have a Reagan/Godfrey-like figure right in their midst. Aside from Barack Obama, of course, the biggest political success story of 2008 was Mike Huckabee, who emerged from absolutely nowhere, with no money, to become a national figure. He is quite conservative but virtually alone in his party. He speaks the language of economic populism in an amiable way that reassures voters.

The key to a Republican revival will be whether they head in the direction of Huckabee and the stylistic mainstream embodied by Reagan, or in the discordant direction of Palin. The economic imperatives of talk radio will push them toward Palin. But unless the Republicans learn how to preach to the masses and not the choir, they're going to remain in the proverbial wilderness for a very long time.

To read the "Presidential Tote Board" blog, go to Steven Stark can be reached at

  Topics: News Features , Media , Ronald Reagan , Radio ,  More more >
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Re: Divide and be conquered
Awesome article.  I am sick and tired of the conservative media pushing their "chosen" down my throat.  First Romney and now Palin.  Meanwhile, they kick the next Ronald Reagan to the curb.
By Iowans Rock on 11/13/2008 at 2:16:14
Re: Divide and be conquered
What is amazing is that Liberals are so interested in silencing talk radio yet on the other hand claim it isn't effective. Maybe what needs to happen is that the mainstream media be scrutinized as much as talk radio is. After all, wasn't it the 4th Estate that didn't do their job during the previous election?
By forsixliter on 11/18/2008 at 1:53:10
Re: Divide and be conquered
 The USA, regardless of the Liberal Media and Politicians, is still Right of Center. When you look at the county maps inside of each state you see a right of center base, not a liberal base. If Obama and the politicos think they have a mandate to go left, their tenure will be short. If Conservative radio is so out of touch with mainstream America how is it that it is so supported by a broad base. Liberal radio ie. Air America could not cut it as no one wanted to advertise on it and it could support it's message. Talk Radio is Conservative because mainstream America is Conservative. Let's put aborition to a popular vote and see what the outcome is. California vote on Gay Marriage. that too failed, Again. The Liberal Left Media can try to explain away Talk Radio, but they aren't going to do by saying it isn't the people's message
By George Spring TX on 11/18/2008 at 3:23:35
Re: Divide and be conquered
Talk Radio has become the domain of ultra right-wing nut jobs.  Rush found a hole and filled it.  His success spawned the herd of wannabee's and they have found success doing the same thing Rush does day in and day out.  We can argue why the audience for these gasbags is so large but the truth is the same as why people slow down to look at the train wreck.  The same reason we watch NASCAR, the wrecks.  While the audiences for these show are large, the people who listen for the most part don't agree with the screech they hear.  They listen because there is no other type of topical programming on the air.  The mistake Air America made was they started out with the intent to counter Rush, Hannity and the rest forgetting that radio is an entertainment medium.  The show they put on the air were boring and anything but entertaining.  The plain fact that with all the alledged power and reach of all the Rush's on the air, they have no impact on elections.  They are loosers and believe their own hype.  The callers are screened better than Supreme Court nominees and it sounds like everyone in the country loves the host and the two wind up validating one another while the vast listening public either curses at their dashboards or just laugh and shake their heads.  Bottom line, big bucks for the yakkers and the stations that carry them.  Remember it's radio, entertainment and that's all.
By Barberi on 11/18/2008 at 6:45:18
Re: Divide and be conquered
QUOTE : "in 1976 when Reagan took out Jimmy Carter." end QUOTE   Unless my 62 year old memory fails me, that was in 1980 ?
By Mongo Moss on 11/19/2008 at 4:07:33
Re: Divide and be conquered
By rigmarock on 11/19/2008 at 10:17:07
Re: Divide and be conquered
1980 - Reagan over Carter.  1992 Clinton over Bush. Talk radio drove the 1994 election of the Republican majority.  Republicans moved to the center and center-left and have been losing ever since.  The two W. elections were against very weak left opposition and media elite had not fined tuned their efforts.  Once again the Republicans (not Right) didn't listen to their base and moved center with an idiotic choice picked by the media and the early caucus states ( another isuue). Without Palin the republicans lose in Reagan type landslide, Event by your media already attacking her.
By atlasshrugging on 11/19/2008 at 11:46:16
Re: Divide and be conquered
 Liberals! My how greedy they are!They have the papers, the TV, and now they want the radio.Well, come on and get it... if you can.The real reason Airhead America never got off the ground is because they were spewing ugly hate and a negative agenda. Fortunately for us reasonable, conservative listeners we have voices on the radio that reflect reason (not just emotion), voices that speak the truth (not hyped worn out lies). If you really listened to Rush and the rest you would have heard a general disappointment over McCains primary win. Conservatives were backing Huckabee, Romney, and Hunter. John had already split from the conservative base and tried to save himself by calling up Palin. We're still going to be conservative. We're still going to listen to Rush and the rest. And, we're not going to allow our voice to be silenced. If you had half a brain you would realize that our voice is what is keeping you free. Where would the USA be without the loyal opposition?Like the song goes... Wake up!You can hate us but, we're not going anywhere. 
By IsleOracle on 11/19/2008 at 10:53:24

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