Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How Influential Is Rush Limbaugh?

The carefully orchestrated elevation of Rush Limbaugh to Grand High Muckety Muck of the Republican party is a confluence of interests. It's in the interest of the Obama administration to have Limbaugh as a foil and it's in Limbaugh's interest to be seen as such.

Without taking a side in the question of whether or not Limbaugh fairly represents the face of the Republican party, I'm interested in a notion which everyone involved--even Republicans who object to Limbaugh--seems to stipulate to: That Limbaugh wields enormous influence. Is that true? Does Limbaugh really matter in any important way?

I don't mean to be churlish. My own tastes in talk radio run exclusively toward sports talk, so I've listened to Limbaugh very little. On the few occasions I have listened to him--maybe 30 hours, total--he wasn't my particular cup of chamomile. But really, who cares what I think? He has lots of listeners and plenty of professional radio people seem to believe that Limbaugh is very good at what he does.

Yet I'm not convinced that either of those things mean Limbaugh is influential.

Let's take Limbaugh's large daily audience. I'd argue that raw audience size is a very imperfect indicator of influence.

Consider television. From 1998 to 2005, Everybody Loves Raymond was among the top 15 rated shows on TV. For five of those years it was in the top 10. It averaged 17.4 million viewers. Was Everybody Loves Raymond influential? I would argue that the show left a very small--maybe non-existent--cultural footprint.

If you sift through the Nielsens from recent years, you'll find a number of highly-rated shows pulling in tens of millions of viewers, which were basically invisible after the credits rolled. This is true even at the very top of the heap: CSI and Home Improvement each finished #1 overall and yet, had they been canceled in the middle of their ratings dominance, I doubt anyone would have noticed.

That said, sometimes high ratings are an indication of influence. American Idol has been the top-rated show for the last four years and might be one of the most influential programs in the history of the medium. My point, however, is that it's a mistake to assume that raw audience equals influence. You often see small shows (The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica) creating much larger (and longer-lasting) impacts than shows which draw many times their audiences.

So if the size of Limbaugh's audience isn't the determining factor of his influence, what is? Well, I'll assume that Limbaugh can send a crowd of people toward a weblink if he mentions it on his program or his website. But crashing a server doesn't take all that much. Slashdot and Boing Boing can do that, too. Can Limbaugh sell books? I'm not being pedantic--I honestly don't know the answer to this question. But if Limbaugh really is influential, then the mere mention of books he likes ought to be enough to routinely put them high on the NYT's best seller list for weeks, the way Oprah Winfrey's approval does.

But for the purposes of this discussion--political power--we have pretty good recent examples of Limbaugh's influence. I understand that Limbaugh (and other conservative talk-radio hosts) weighed in heavily against the Bush immigration deal. That deal failed. But was this because of Limbaugh? Maybe. But presumably Limbaugh was against a great number of other Bush initiatives that passed--No Child Left Behind, Medicare prescription drugs, the omnibus energy bill, the Detroit bailout. (I'm just guessing here; if I'm incorrectly ascribing views to Limbaugh, I apologize in advance.)

The 2008 primary season provided a particularly good indication of Limbaugh's level of influence. He seems to have supported Mitt Romney. Despite Limbaugh's support, Romney received only 4.7 million votes. The candidate Limbaugh favored least and argued against most--John McCain--won the nomination. Again, I'm not a devotee of Limbaugh's show, but my sense is that Limbaugh made his distaste for McCain very apparent. Republican primary voters paid little heed.

After the Romney flame-out, Limbaugh began promoting what he called "Operation Chaos," where he instructed listeners to vote for Hillary Clinton in Democratic primaries. Limbaugh claimed a good deal of credit for her subsequent victories, but I've never seen any data which suggests that his influence was significant, let alone decisive. To the contrary, almost all of the Democratic primary results--both before and after “Operation Chaos”--fit within a stable racial, socio-economic model.

Finally, in the general election, I presume that Limbaugh favored (to some degree) McCain over Obama. Again, Limbaugh's influence failed to materialize.

I'm open to the argument that Limbaugh is influential; but I don't think there’s a prima facie case for it. On the contrary, I'd argue that the evidence suggests Limbaugh is an expert entertainer in a medium with a small cultural, intellectual, and political footprint. He has very little influence in the world of ideas. And when it comes to actually energizing the masses toward action, his record is, at best, mixed.

Limbaugh’s powers of influence seem more on the level of Howard Stern. At his peak, Stern drew about 13 million listeners, which is in the ballpark with the 14 million or so Limbaugh has drawn through most of this decade. Like Limbaugh, Stern was credited with having a great deal of influence on his listeners. But that influence never really materialized beyond his ability to get people to tune in to a show he was giving away for free. Stern's one attempt at translating his influence to the movies failed--the 1997 Howard Stern’s Private Parts opened to $14 million and grossed only $40 million. And when Stern moved to subscription-based satellite radio, his audience let him go without a second thought.


Anonymous said...

Overall I think you make some decent points, but I do have to quibble with the idea that "CSI" may not have had much cultural influence. Maybe it didn't in the general public sphere, but I can tell you from my experience (and that of my colleagues) that it has had a real effect in the way jurors view criminal cases and thus the way prosecutors and defense counsel approach those cases. Simply put, a lot of jurors now expect all sorts of scientific evidence to be introduced at trial -- even in cases where there is absolutely no need for it -- and woe unto the prosecutor who doesn't at least throw them a CSI-esque bone.

Anonymous said...

Not to disagree with Anon 9:14am, but to point out the flip-side of his argument:
Yes, jurors now expect CSI-style evidence partly as a result of the shows. That being said, when they get that evidence it usually makes the case a slam-dunk. Before CSI-style shows, I don't know how much juries considered this evidence as a slam-dunk. For example, there is no chance on earth OJ isn't convicted of murder had he been put on trial in the era of CSI. No chance. The DNA evidence was overwhelming, but the jury simply didn't pay any attention to it.

As for Rush: He's not that influential, but his influence is real in part because republicans and conservatives have ceded leadership to him.

Dave S. said...


1) Elected GOP representative (e.g. Gingrey) or RNC official (Steele) criticizes Limbaugh publicly.
2) Limbaugh attacks critic.
3) Critic apologizes publicly and almost immediately.

What causes this pattern of behavior on both sides?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how influential Rush is either, but I don't think that's the Democrats' point. They just want to associate conservative views (or any views they disagree with) with someone who can be easily demonized...thus, if you hold these views you must be a ditto-head and no more attention need be paid to you.


Anonymous said...

I don't think he can send people into movie theaters based on his recommendations. Two examples: United 93 and Henry Poole Is Here.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, radio audiences are summed up over a week. Rush is on five days a week. He has an audience of 4 million per day, which is reported as 20 million. This is just the way of the industry- it's not Rush shennanigans- but it makes it hard to compare Rush's numbers to Everyone Loves Raymond.

Anonymous said...

A lot of good points here. Not to belittle any of his fans, but I've taken to viewing him - and most of the pundits on both sides - in the same way I view Paris Hilton: they they are trying to stay relevant by being shocking. But in the same breath, I think we make these people influential because we need someone to lion/demonize, a figure to look up to or spit on.

Again, thank you for a really great post.

Shannon Last said...

JVL, guess you just killed any shot you ever had at guest-hosting on the gold-plated EIB microphone.

: )