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Talk Radio Plays Historical Role in Elections

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
(The following is the second of three excerpts from The Right Frequency: The Story of the Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment , by Fred Lucas; History Publishing Company. The adapted excerpts look at the impact of talk radio on election results.)

Before what would turn out to be an historic election, a New York Times article said, “If Larry King’s CNN program functioned as a nominating process for Ross Perot; Rush Limbaugh may be a kind of national precinct captain for the Republican insurgency of 1994.”

An election night poll by Fabrizio-McLaughlin of 1,000 people asked: “Who do you think has been more straightforward in discussing the issues of this election?” Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio hosts got 34.3 percent from the poll. The mainstream media got 26.9 percent.

On November 8 Republicans took the House as Limbaugh expected, and took the Senate to boot. Congress was under new management. Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House of Representatives. Bob Dole was the new Senate Majority Leader.

Winning the caucuses in Louisiana and Alaska, then edging out Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary, it was a real possibility Pat Buchanan – who Rush endorsed for president four years earlier -- would be the GOP nominee in 1996. But Buchanan’s stances against the North American Free Trade Agreement and other free trade policies were too much for Limbaugh.

“I’ll tell you something, you are being manipulated in a way that I find very bothersome,” Limbaugh told Buchanan supporters after the New Hampshire victory. “Pat Buchanan is not a conservative. He’s a populist.” He also said, “Pat Buchanan wants to engage in policies that expand the role of government in people’s lives.”

Buchanan supporters made up a big portion of Limbaugh’s audience. Talk Daily did an analysis from February 19-23, 1996 and found that pro-Buchanan callers outnumbered by 3-1 pro-Dole, pro-Steve Forbes and pro-Lamar Alexander callers combined.

Did the sustained attacks impact the primary contest eventually won by Dole? Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, thinks so. In an interview on Limbaugh’s show, Barone said, “You spoke out consistently against those things to the core audience that Buchanan was aiming at, and he failed completely.”

When John McCain trounced George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary by a surprising margin, it posed the question whether the inevitability of Bush’s nomination would happen. Limbaugh warned that even though the media is “orgasmic” over McCain now, they are “love ’em and leave ’em liberals” if he is the Republican nominee (a prediction given credence by the 2008 election).

The National Annenberg Election Study found that post New Hampshire primary, listening to Limbaugh negatively affected the voters feelings about McCain. This is significant since Limbaugh’s focus on McCain really began after the senator’s victory in New Hampshire. The Annenberg study also found that the impression Republican voters in Super Tuesday states had of McCain took a negative turn after listening to Limbaugh.

In 1993, Christie Whitman was running an uphill race against New Jersey Governor Jim Florio. She won by a slim margin and credited Bob Grant with helping her get elected. In 1994, Grant even hit the campaign trail for George Pataki, proclaiming, “We get the chance to show Mario the door in ‘94.” He would regularly bring Pataki on the air and introduce him as “the next governor of the state of New York.”

Pataki, felt most of the New York media was solidly behind Gov. Mario Cuomo, and had already written him off. “Whenever I wanted to talk to the people, I’d call Bob Grant,” Pataki said. One week prior to the November 1994 gubernatorial election, Cuomo led by double digits in most polls. However, Pataki’s numerous appearances on Grant’s show, and Grant’s own crusade against Cuomo—whom he called “Il Supremo” led to a stunning victory for Pataki, who would go on to serve three terms.

The Gray Davis re-election celebration had barely ended when on December 30, 2002 on San Francisco’s KSFO, Melanie Morgan first mentioned the possibility of a recall.

“I have been dubbed ‘the Mother of the Recall’ but I think Gray Davis thinks of me as just a real mother bleeper,” Morgan joked. “I was thrilled by the response, because it was exactly what I envisioned would happen. But I did not expect other talk radio hosts to jump onboard so quickly. Radio show hosts are feral animals, and they usually do not want to become involved with an idea or concept that another host was pushing. This time was different. And everyone could take a piece of the credit because it took a sustained political effort, a daily push, to get the buzz, build the anticipation for change, and demand action from the citizens of California.”

Tax reformer Ted Costa and Sacremento talk radio host Eric Hogue organized “drive by signings,” where state residents could sign a recall petition at orange-coned drive-up lanes that offered coffee and donuts.

“When the numbers showed that the Governor was officially finished, I quietly cried. I offered up a prayer for Gray Davis and his family,” Morgan said. “I did not expect to be so emotional, but it was the first time in my adult life where I witnessed citizen activism challenge and change the system.”

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