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Conservative Talk Radio Won't Lose Its Bluster

Top Talkers Failed to Derail McCain, but Ratings Unlikely to Suffer

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Well, that didn't go as planned.

Despite the efforts of the right-wing radio's heaviest hitters, John McCain walked out of Super Tuesday with a clear lead. Not even top-rated talker Rush Limbaugh could bring down the Maverick, a man Mr. Limbaugh accused of stabbing "his own party in the back."
John McCain won a clear victory on Super Tuesday despite opposition from conservative talk show hosts.
John McCain won a clear victory on Super Tuesday despite opposition from conservative talk show hosts. Credit: Charles Dharapak

"Talk radio's job is not to get people elected, it's to have listeners and to sell advertising," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, adding that any discussion of the impact is good for business.

Numbers for the top talkers have held steady over the last three years, with Mr. Limbaugh pulling in an average of 13.5 million listeners a week, according to Talkers.

On his national radio show, Mr. Limbaugh said Mr. McCain's nomination would "destroy" the Republican Party. Laura Ingraham said: "There is no way in hell I could pull the lever for John McCain."

Ann Coulter threatens
And they weren't alone. National radio talk-show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt was also very vocal in opposition to Mr. McCain, who ended up winning nine states last Tuesday. Ann Coulter said she'd throw her support behind Hillary Clinton if the two squared off in the general election.

The results had some questioning the influence and credibility of political talk radio and TV shows.

Rich Masters, a partner at Qorvis Communications, said pundits such as Mr. Limbaugh did have an effect on the voting because many believed Mr. McCain was going to walk away with a clean sweep. The problem is that Mitt Romney, who most of these talking heads were supporting, didn't reap the benefits of their efforts; Mike Huckabee did. But Mr. Huckabee had come under fire from Mr. Limbaugh too. After Super Tuesday, he suggested that Mr. Huckabee "needs to get out."

"He was the beneficiary of the right-wing vitriol," Mr. Masters said. "The residual effect was split up and that tells us a lot about who listens to talk radio."

That split could indicate that Southern evangelicals are a stronger voting bloc within the party than plain old conservatives. "There's no doubt that Huckabee has gained by any kind of split and was helped out by what went on this past week," said Mr. Harrison.

Less significant
And if the radio talkers managed to deter a clean sweep on Mr. McCain's part, even that little victory seemed a Pyrrhic one when Mr. Romney announced he was dropping out of the race two days later.

Mr. Masters also conceded that the results signify a lack of effectiveness of these shows.

"Is it a titanic shift?" he asked. "No. It does show a weakening, but they will continue to have an impact, but much less so than they or a lot of people thought."

Mr. Harrison urged caution, though, in attributing great powers to the radio talkers. "They are only radio performers. If you look at the ... statistics that show how many people are listening to any one radio host, there's no way that any host or group ... can change a national election primary or general when there's a major shift in the public opinion." Such a shift is going on right now in the Republican party "about the neo-con position," he added.

'True to his values'
Fred Jacobs, president of radio consulting firm Jacobs Media, doesn't necessarily believe that Mr. Limbaugh or any of the other McCain bashers will take much of a public-relations knock for supporting Mr. Romney.

"[Mr.] Limbaugh doesn't take a PR hit because he's being true to his values," Mr. Jacobs said. "There are going to be people in the overall listenership who are put off by that but if the cult of personality is strong enough they can survive picking the wrong horse. And Limbaugh has very loyal listeners."
Rush Limbaugh pulls in an average of 13.5 million listeners a week, according to Talkers magazine.
Rush Limbaugh pulls in an average of 13.5 million listeners a week, according to Talkers magazine. Credit: Jimi Celeste

But Mr. Jacobs warned the talk-show host would stand to lose face among his audience if he suddenly jumped on the McCain bandwagon.

Robert Mathias, managing director of Ogilvy PR's Washington office, said conservative hosts need to begin adapting to the changes occurring in the Republican party or risk losing their audiences.

Keeping up
"Mr. McCain's victory creates a little bit of a loss of standing, but it is not a sea change," he said. "The party is not moving in lock step with conservatives, and if there is in fact a change occurring and if these guys don't adjust they will lose some of their audience."

Mr. Jacobs said it's now a win-win situation for the likes of Mr. Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts. Regardless of who now makes it to the White House, they will have an adversary they can complain about for four years.

"He is actually guaranteed some great material now," Mr. Jacobs said.

Added Mr. Harrison, "They can now be critical of both parties, which puts them in a much better position."
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