That the media has been looking to anoint a nominee before a single primary vote is cast was a pervasive opinion throughout conservative talk radio this week.
Further fanning these frustrations on the AM airwaves was the belief that elements within the GOP were publicly pressuring late entrants into the presidential primary to thwart the rise of a conservative, anti-establishment nominee.
Tension reached a crescendo this week with the unflagging media coverage leading up to Chris Christie’s address this Tuesday at the Reagan Presidential Library. The attention led some to charge the Republican Party was using the New Jersey governor to deflect media attention away from more conservative candidates like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum.
The Morris Model
In a September 27th appearance on Sean Hannity’s radio program, Dick Morris insisted the attempt to recruit Christie was due to GOP establishment misgivings about Mitt Romney rather than animus towards his conservative nomination rivals.
However, the former Clinton White House advisor concurred with observations that the media is in the process of preemptively anointing the GOP nominee. Morris even predicted this would occur in his most recent bestseller released in March.
“I wrote in my book Revolt that Iowa, and New Hampshire, and all those early states would lose power because the cable news stations would dominate the process and basically settle on a nominee in a national primary long before we ever got to Iowa. And I think that is exactly what’s happening today.”
“Yeah, we’ll all pay attention to Iowa, and it could result in an upset. But these debates are sifting through the field – Romney’s the frontrunner, Perry’s fallen back, Cain came on strong, Bachmann is fading. You’re going to see through these debates – which draw 60 to 70 percent of the electorate watching them – in effect a national cable TV primary, which will then impose its will on the early states rather than the other way around.”
Granted Morris was correct that Cain hitting the last debate out of the park gave him a huge bump in the latest Fox News poll, lifting him to 17% support nationally among GOP primary voters. But Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney also turned in strong performances, while their numbers – at 3% and 23% respectively – remain nearly unchanged since the same survey was conducted in late August.
The radio rub of it
Concluding the inevitable influence of the cable news primary has a big blind spot: talk radio. Whatever the opinions of the GOP establishment on the matter, there are three considerations regarding talk radio that temper the ability of cable news – or any other form of media – to impose opinions on GOP primary voters.
First, the numbers don’t add up. The Fox News/Google debate was the most watched to date, drawing a record breaking 6.1 million viewers. The previous record holder, the NBC/Politico debate, had a TV audience of 5.4 million.
The sum of the top three conservative talk radio program audiences (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage) is roughly 38 million. If you include the figures for Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham – each with an audience size greater than or equal to the Fox debate’s – the figure comes to 61 million.
This figure may be somewhat high because audiences overlap with the same fan listening to multiple shows. But it still illustrates that even the most watched cable debates are dwarfed by the talk radio listening audience. And while talk radio fans may not listen to these shows in their entirety, the same could be said of cable debates viewers.
Second, the hosts of many of these radio shows have repeatedly eschewed dominant media narratives, including ones that emerge after debates, and have been openly hostile to Republicans that appear to perpetuate them. These talk personalities are resistant to opinions that certain candidates should be written off, that the GOP primary is a two-person contest, or that voters should come to a consensus before the primaries and caucuses occur.
Third, the ongoing dialogue on talk radio about the debates and the primary itself is by the media’s very nature more unstructured, spontaneous, and participatory. While debates like the one produced by Fox News/Google attempt to involve viewers, the efforts aren’t in the same league as radio hosts who regularly take questions and respond to callers. Radio hosts engendering those relationships will probably be more influential in the minds of primary voters.
Maybe, Maybe Not
Debates matters and cable programming does hold substantial sway – but the proposition that its influence is decisive might be giving too little credit to both the AM Dial and GOP grassroots voters. They’re at least as likely to influence the cable debates as be influenced by them.
Either way, it will be interesting to watch the process unfold, particularly with personalities like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mary Katharine Ham, and Dennis Miller straddling cable TV and radio media.
Morris could well be proven wrong in the weeks after the Iowa caucuses next February, a point he readily concedes.
But either way, it seems for the next few months we’ll all be living in interesting times.
Follow John Goodman at Twitter here
Podcasts and recaps of Sean Hannity’s radio program are available here
Daily political commentary from Dick Morris is available at his website here