David Brooks does an excellent job today of pointing out, using the 2008 election and talk radio’s inability to stop John McCain from getting the GOP nomination, the fundamental fact that conservative talk radio hosts such as Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity aren’t nearly as influential as they pretend to be:
So what is the theme of our history lesson? It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche — even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as “The Wizard of Oz,” of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain.
Brooks also points to a study which demonstrates quite conclusively that Rush Limbaugh’s much-hyper “Operation Chaos” had little impact on the Democratic nomination fight and, yet, as Brooks correctly notes, Republican politicos continue to pay these radio hosts far more attention than their actual impact on politics would seem to suggest is warranted:
Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.
They pay more attention to Rush’s imaginary millions than to the real voters down the street.The Republican Party is unpopular because it’s more interested in pleasing Rush’s ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer’s niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician’s coalition-building strategy.
The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.
Brooks has a point.
If the GOP wants to be a majority party again, it’s going to have to do a lot more than appeal to the ahem choir being led by Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck.