SOUTH CAROLINA’S BIG LOSER: TALK RADIO
It’s obvious that the big winner in South Carolina was John McCain (grabbing 33% of the vote in a hard-fought win and 19 of the 22 awarded delegates), but it’s also worth pausing for a moment to identify the primary’s biggest loser.
That loser wasn’t Mike Huckabee (who ran a strong second with 30% of the vote and will certainly continue his underdog campaign), nor was it Fred Thompson (who placed third with 16%, despite talk of his last minute surge) or even Mitt Romney (with a feeble fourth place finish, despite investing more money in the state than any of his rivals).
The big loser in South Carolina was, in fact, talk radio: a medium that has unmistakably collapsed in terms of impact, influence and credibility because of its hysterical and one-dimensional involvement in the GOP nomination fight.
For more than a month, the leading conservative talkers in the country have broadcast identical messages in an effort to demonize Mike Huckabee and John McCain. If you’ve tuned in at all to Rush, Sean, Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, and two dozen others you’ve heard a consistent drum beat of hostility toward Mac and Huck. As always, led by Rush Limbaugh (who because of talent and seniority continues to dominate the medium) the talk radio herd has ridden in precisely the same direction, insisting that McCain and Huckabee deserve no support because they’re not “real conservatives.” A month ago, the angry right launched the slogan that Mike Huckabee is a “pro-life liberal.” More recently, after McCain’s energizing victory in New Hampshire, they trotted out the mantra that the Arizona Senator (with a life-time rating for his Congressional voting record of 83% from the American Conservative Union) is a “pro-war liberal.”
Well, the two alleged “liberals,” McCain and Huckabee just swept a total of 63% of the Republican vote in deeply conservative South Carolina. Meanwhile, the two darlings of talk radio -- Mitt Romney and, to a lesser extent, Fred Thompson—combined for an anemic 31% of the vote.
How conservative was the electorate that cast ballots on Saturday (in a big, enthusiastic turnout despite inclement weather)? Exit polls showed 69% of GOP voters described themselves as “conservative” (as opposed to “liberal” or “moderate.”) Among those self-styled conservatives, an overwhelming 61% went for Mac and Huck; only 35% for Mitt and Fred).
The exit polls even sorted out voters who described themselves as “VERY conservative” –a group that represented a full 34% of the primary day electorate. If any segment of the public should have been influenced by all the apocalyptic shouting about “the end of conservatism” if Huckabee or McCain led a national ticket and defined a new direction for the GOP, it would have been these folks. Among “Very Conservative” voters, however, Huckabee won handily (with 41%). Again, the Huck-and-Mac duo, representing talk radio’s two designated villains, swept 60% of the “Very Conservative” voters in very conservative South Carolina while Mitt and Fred combined for only 38% (22% for Thompson, 16% for Romney).
In other words, even among the most right wing segment of the South Carolina electorate, talk radio failed – and failed miserably – in efforts to destroy and discredit Huckabee and McCain.
As the campaign moves forward, my colleagues in talk radio (along with program directors, general managers, advertisers and the other segments of our industry) ought to reconsider the one-sided, embittered negativity toward two of our four surviving candidates for President (Fred Thompson’s departure from the race is reportedly imminent, after he “consults” with his hospital bound mother).
McCain and Huckabee are both decent and principled conservatives --and so, for that matter, are Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Duncan Hunter (who’s due to leave the race within twenty-four hours). Isn’t it about time for the nation’s other high profile talkers to join me in acknowledging that we’ve got a group of outstanding candidates each of whom, in his own way, represents different aspects of the Reagan legacy?
There’s no need to pretend that the candidates are identically conservative (they’re certainly not), or equally qualified, or similarly appealing. But they’re all solid Republicans, dedicated public servants, and worthy contenders for the party’s nomination. Most important, each of them is vastly preferable to Clinton or Obama.
Heading into Florida (on January 29th) we need to acknowledge that one of four remaining contenders will almost certainly head the Republican ticket. He (whoever he turns out to be) will need a united party and a revived, renewed conservative coalition.
South Carolina demonstrates the utter ineffectiveness of concerted efforts by the conservative media elite to derail the campaigns of two popular candidates. Continued efforts in that direction will prove no more effective, and will hurt both our industry and the Republican Party.
In other words, the talk radio jihad against Mac and Huck hasn’t destroyed or even visibly damaged those candidates. But it has damaged, and may help destroy, talk radio