Does Talk Radio Make A Difference?

Much has been made over the past few weeks of the possible influence of conservative talk radio upon the race to decide the 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee. While John McCain now appears to be the candidate, there has been a considerable backlash against McCain from several notable conservative radio talk show hosts. Have Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others had any impact upon the hearts and minds of Republican voters? With the help of the National Election Pool, Edison decided to find out–and the results may surprise you.

In the Virginia Republican Primary, the Exit Polls we conduct on behalf of the National Election Pool included a question to find out. Of the over 700 interviews we conducted among Republican Primary voters at polling places throughout Virginia, 30% indicated that they “Frequently” listened to conservative talk radio (other choices: Occasionally, Rarely, and Never).

While McCain won the state, Huckabee won decisively with “frequent” conservative talk radio listeners, 51% to 36%:

Does this mean, however, that Talk Radio had an influence? Or does Talk Radio simply provide, as Bill Bennett suggested, a “Dial Tone;” merely holding up a mirror to the values of its listeners? One way to shed a little light on this is to put the magnifying glass to these frequent talk radio listeners, and see what makes them tick. For clarity’s sake, we’ll compare them to their opposite extreme, the 18% who “Never” listen to conservative talk radio (and recall that these are all Republican Primary Voters):

Virginia Republican Primary Exit Poll Data

  • Which comes closest to your position on Abortion?
    • “Frequents”:     Illegal: 75%;    Legal: 22%
    • “Nevers”:         Illegal: 47%;     Legal: 49%
  • How often do you attend church services?
    • “Frequents”:     More than once/week: 30%;    Weekly: 35%
    • “Nevers”:         More than once/week: 19%;    Weekly: 30%
  • Would you describe yourself as an evangelical, or born again Christian?
    • “Frequents”:     Yes: 57%
    • “Nevers”:         Yes: 33%
  • What is your position on Illegal Immigrants?
    • “Frequents”:     Deported to the country they came from: 56%;   
      Offered Chance to Apply for Citizenship: 20%
    • “Nevers”:         Deported to the country they came from: 32%;   
      Offered Chance to Apply for Citizenship: 38%
  • How do you feel about the U.S. war in Iraq?
    • “Frequents”:     Strongly Approve: 52%;    Strongly Disapprove: 5%
    • “Nevers”:         Strongly Approve: 23%;    Strongly Disapprove: 15%
  • And the big winner:

  • On most political matters, would you describe yourself as…
    • “Frequents”:     Very Conservative: 50%;    Moderate: 13%
    • “Nevers”:         Very Conservative: 18%;    Moderate: 43%

One could make an argument, I suppose, that talk radio might have held some sway over its audience’s positions on Iraq, or Immigration — but not on deep seated, personal convictions like Abortion, or being a born again Christian. These are simply different people than the non-talk radio listeners in the sample, and those divisions run much deeper than whether or not they listen to Rush or Hannity for a few hours per day.

When you overlay the Virginia data above with the same results from the Maryland Republican Primary, the picture gets much clearer. In Maryland, 28% of Republican voters were “frequent” listeners, and 19% listened “never” — so far, almost identical to the same numbers from Virginia.:

Yet Huckabee did very poorly in Maryland compared to Virginia. In fact, Huckabee did very poorly with frequent listeners to talk radio, with 28% of that group choosing him, and 49% choosing McCain (numbers that were very close to the total results):

Same percentage of Republicans listening in both states, dramatically different results. Why the difference? Compare the VA answers, above, with the same data from the MD contest:

Maryland Republican Primary Exit Poll Data

  • Which comes closest to your position on Abortion
    • “Frequents”:     Illegal: 58%;    Legal: 41%
    • “Nevers”:         Illegal: 42%;    Legal: 57%
  • How often do you attend church services?
    • “Frequents”:     More than once/week: 13%;    Weekly: 39%
    • “Nevers”:         More than once/week: 11%;    Weekly: 33%
  • Would you describe yourself as an evangelical, or born again Christian?
    • “Frequents”:     Yes: 34%
    • “Nevers”:         Yes 24%
  • What is your position on Illegal Immigrants?
    • “Frequents”:     Deported to the country they came from 49%;   
      Offered Chance to Apply for Citizenship 27%
    • “Nevers”:         Deported to the country they came from 26%;   
      Offered Chance to Apply for Citizenship 46%
  • How do you feel about the U.S. war in Iraq?
    • “Frequents”:     Strongly Approve 50%;    Strongly Disapprove: 8%
    • “Nevers”:         Strongly Approve 17%;    Strongly Disapprove: 20%
  • On most political matters, would you describe yourself as…
    • “Frequents”:     Very Conservative 41%;    Moderate 19%
    • “Nevers”:         Very Conservative 15%;    Moderate 48%

The crucial distinction here is the difference between attitudes and beliefs. Attitudes are a function of experience, and can be changed subject to persuasion. In that, it could be argued that conservative talk radio might nudge you a little one way or the other regarding a certain issue. It would take some serious nudging, however, to knock you completely out of a lane that has been circumscribed by your beliefs. Beliefs tend to be developed early in life, and are much more resistant to change. Could a talk show host sway you one way or another in regards to an infrastructure bond issue? Sure. Could they influence your beliefs about family, God or morals? Probably not.

What we see in the six questions above reflects this crucial distinction. The first three questions are about beliefs, the second three about attitudes. The “attitude” questions on Iraq and Immigration reflect sharp differences between talk radio listeners and non-listeners in both Maryland and Virginia. The differences between the “beliefs” questions, however, are not as sharp in Maryland as they are in Virginia, despite the similar percentage of talk radio listeners–and Huckabee’s performance was dramatically different in those two states amongst frequent talk radio listeners, apples to apples.

The numbers suggest, then, that conservative talk radio simply attracts people with similar attitudes, and successful talk show hosts hold a mirror up to those attitudes to increase empathy (and ratings) and reinforce those attitudes. The beliefs of their listeners, however, are not monolithic, and clearly both states rewarded the candidate with whom they shared beliefs, not attitudes. The evidence from both states strongly suggests that voting for Huckabee — the actual behavior — did not correlate with attitudes (i.e., “issues”) but instead, as has been the case throughout Huckabee’s campaign, correlated most strongly with religious values. In the end, whether or not conservative talk show hosts are able to attract persons with similar attitudes, or are actually able to persuade listeners to adopt similar attitudes, the result is the same–the actual vote did not correlate with those attitudes as strongly as it did with the differences in beliefs between the two electorates, and this — not talk radio — dictated Huckabee’s fortunes in both states.

Of course, the talk radio audience’s perception of John McCain is surely not something that has been inculcated since birth, and is thus a potentially more malleable attitude. Attitudes can be changed — and McCain’s best bet to appeal to that portion of the Republican party will be to tie his attitudes to the beliefs and core values that he undoubtedly shares with the average Limbaugh listener, and to trace his own stand on the issues back to that same set of shared, deeply held moral and cultural norms. In that manner, he can perhaps tone down the negativity he is taking from prominent talk radio hosts, and maybe even begin to win them over.

5 replies
  1. Earl Gregory
    Earl Gregory says:

    I’m a frequent listener to “Conservative” Talk Radio (there is very little “Liberal/Progressive” Talk Radio but I did listen when they were there). I really don’t agree that the Rush Limbaugh’s or Sean Hannity’s have that much influence over their listeners as the Republican Party may think. People who tune in to these programs (at least “I”) do,tune in for information that they will not get otherwise. Conservatism, by nature, is rooted in certain core beliefs and principles that the individual comes to their conclusions on issues and events.
    I believe that the Republican Party is giving Rush far more credit than he deserves on his influence. Certainly his lack of support of John McCain is well based on the history of McCain’s political record in regards to his measure of Conservatism. And he is entitled to air that. It’s his show. I don’t think he is putting a gun to anyones head to “make” them agree. That’s why there are curtains on the booth.
    The real poll/question is “How much lipstick will it take to dress up this pig”? Sorry,GOP. McCain is what he is. People will have to choose Conservatism or Party Politics come November.
    Hmmm “The Emperor’s New Clothes” come to mind. Maybe Rush is “The Child” that sees the Emperor “is” naked. Oh well.
    Earl Gregory

  2. joey reynolds
    joey reynolds says:

    If they are so conservative about everyone else,how about the fact that these Senator(s) and other Govt. employees remain on the payroll while they seek a better job and we are still paying them for doing nothing in the area that they are supposed to serve us?
    shorten the campaign and come to work, we need help.

  3. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    Interesting. So the data suggests talk radio hosts are following the public rather than leading them. Here in Australia the same debate has been going on, though we don’t have the extreme range of talk radio that you do. We have just as many idiots phoning in though.

  4. Scott
    Scott says:

    Drug user, Hypocrite Comedian Rush Limbaugh is very funny. And Sean Hannity enjoys beating up his callers. I think Sean has some issues, I feel sorry for his wife.
    I pity the idiots who can


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