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View from Australia: Caught in the Rush

By Nicole Hemmer

Rush LimbaughFor radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, April is shaping up to be far from the cruellest month. In March, Limbaugh was on the ropes, caught in a maelstrom of his own making. It began when he called a young law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her advocacy of the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

An outpouring of outrage followed: public outcry, fleeing advertisers, rumours of the show’s demise. The backlash surprised most observers. This was, after all, the man who mainstreamed neologisms like “feminazi” for advocates of women’s rights and “info-babe” for any newscaster of the XX-persuasion.

Intense as it was, the squall passed quickly for America’s most popular rightwing radio personality. Check the scorecard. A month after the event, a grand total of two stations have dumped the program. The 600 sponsors who fled the show have now mostly (if quietly) returned. Limbaugh claims ratings are up.

While The Rush Limbaugh Show seems to have escaped largely unscathed, the Republican Party is still surveying the damage. Recent polls suggest the toll could be quite high. Likely nominee Mitt Romney was neck-and-neck with Barack Obama in early March. Today he’s nine points behind nationally and lagging even further in key swing states.

A close look at the numbers shows why: women. In the wake of Limbaugh’s remarks, they flocked to President Obama. His numbers among young women voters have skyrocketed from under half to more than 60 per cent. A head-to-head match-up with Governor Romney reveals an 18 point gender gap in favour of the president.

So how did Mitt Romney end up taking the brunt of Rush Limbaugh’s comments?

Already upended by a bizarre, hard-slog primary battle, the GOP found itself swept into the Limbaugh controversy from the start. That’s because the party’s base — the mass of loyal partisans who come out for the weakly-attended primaries — is attuned to conservative media. As the primary dragged on and the battle for that base intensified, the candidates became more attuned as well. When asked about Limbaugh’s beyond-the-pale comments, they failed to offer anything stronger than a critique of his wording, lest they cross the man and his millions of listeners.

The result? When Democrats began talking about a Republican “war on women,” there wasn’t much evidence to the contrary to counter the charge.

In the Republican primary, that’s not a problem. Single women, the demographic most responsive to the contraception issue, aren’t the ones deciding the GOP nominee. So few young single women vote in the Republican primary that the New York Times deemed them “statistically invisible.” When focused solely on the nomination, why would a politician risk alienating the base to appeal to a group of voters who won’t show up on primary night?

Well, there’s this: Single women will make up 26 per cent of the electorate come November. And now they’re moving into the Obama camp in such numbers that, were the vote held today, he would outperform his 2008 results.

Given the bruising primary and the surge toward Obama, it would be fair to wonder if the Republican Party is determined to blow the 2012 contest. Just a few years ago they seemed to have everything going for them. The Tea Party dominated the news cycle. The 2010 election swept Republicans into office across the country. Even that pesky gender gap, the one that always favoured the Democrats, disappeared in the midterms.

The big misstep came when the Republican Party decided to tie its fortunes to a base immersed in conservative media and obsessed with ideological purity. Those voters have shown a breathtaking willingness to punish any politician unwilling to toe the line.

Even for the most conservative candidates, it’s a hard line to toe. Governor Rick Perry, with his Texas swagger, anti-Washington pique, and everyman folksiness, seemed ready to run the table with Tea Party supporters until he made a critical mistake in one debate. No, not forgetting which government department he had sworn to cut — by then, Perry had been off the lead for weeks. It was in a late September debate when, still topping the national polls, Perry was asked about his support of the DREAM Act, which allows children of undocumented workers to attend state colleges at in-state rates.

In his response, Perry blasted opponents of the act as heartless. Just one problem: conservatives comprised the core of DREAM Act opposition. The backlash was instantaneous. Limbaugh pounced, and his denunciation of Perry echoed across the conserva-sphere. Rick Perry never again led in national polls.

The remaining candidates heeded the lesson. But in over-attending the base to win the nomination, the eventual nominee will find the prize far less valuable than it seemed eight months ago. At root this is a failure of both leadership and followership. By allowing Limbaugh to set the agenda, the candidates have traded broad national appeal for narrow sectarian gains. And in demanding their leaders meet impeccable, shifting standards, the base has helped bring to life their nightmare scenario: four more years of an Obama presidency.

Photo of Rush Limbaugh adapted from Dan Correia.

5 April 2012