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Matt Towery / March 13, 2009

Polls Say Democrats Are Gambling By Taking on Limbaugh

First, just a word before the following is dismissed by Democratic readers as partisan, or as being from someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about. My polling firm, InsiderAdvantage, is non-partisan. It polled the 2008 presidential race for the red-hot political site Politico, and was in a recent speech at Fordham University named by a guru who even D.C. liberals praise as one of the three most accurate national pollsters for the presidential contest.

            This column isn’t about partisanship. It’s about strategy.

            I’ve only met Rush Limbaugh once. It was back when I was politically active, running Newt Gingrich’s campaign. One time in particular I had occasion to sit and casually chat with Limbaugh.

            It was enlightening. He was the complete opposite of his persona. He was soft-spoken, extraordinarily polite and clearly not taking himself too seriously. My friends who know him well tell me he is still that way today.

            Now for a second big personality, Democratic strategist James Carville. He was revealed just this week by media to have reportedly once said he hoped President Bush would fail – just as Rush Limbaugh has recently been assailed for hoping the same about President Obama.

            To be fair, Carville is much like Limbaugh. Sorry, conservatives, but while James can be nasty and shrill on TV – and, as I write in my book, a tough political opponent – he also is in private very polite and unassuming, not to mention kind and funny, too.

            I would never make James Carville my target if I were trying to tear down the Democratic Party. Likewise, I would be wary of targeting Rush Limbaugh if I were an Obama strategist.

            I can understand why some might suggest otherwise. A recent McClatchy newspaper poll reports that Limbaugh has only a 30 percent approval rating, and a 46 percent disapproval rating.

            But that poll needs to be placed into perspective. It’s likely that most of the 46 percent who say they view Limbaugh unfavorably have never heard his show. And reports of the survey’s details suggest that Limbaugh suffers from weakness with independent voters.

            Those two facts could prove dangerous for the Democrats in the future. Here’s how:

            Independents are the swing voters who place either Democrats or Republicans in the White House and in control of the House or Senate. When times are good, most independents will stick with the party for which they last voted. But let an unpopular policy start to get legs – such as Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal years ago – or let the nation appear to be headed the wrong way while one political party is in charge, and look out!

            Independents are open-minded. They will also turn on a dime. Here’s a good example: How does anyone think that the Republicans managed to capture the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 after decades of solid Democratic control and with Bill Clinton in the White House? The answer was “Hillary Care,” combined with a general feeling that things in general weren’t going so great under Democratic rule.

            That’s where this Limbaugh strategy seems flawed to me. By taking on Rush, the Democrats are calling attention to his show. That adds listeners. If President Obama were to continue sinking in the polls, and should some of his major early initiatives start to become unpopular, it is highly likely that the curious might just tune in Limbaugh to see what “the other side” has to say.

            Limbaugh has two things already going for him. First, he has nearly a third of the nation that views him favorably. Second, anyone who listens to his show knows that Limbaugh plays the role of pompous ringmaster, but in jest. After five minutes it is clear that he is not a hatemonger. And he articulates a message that disaffected independent voters might readily embrace. There is, after all, a reason why he is the No. 1 talk show host in America.

            In public opinion polling we keep in mind something that often is not obvious. If just 5 percent of those who say they have an unfavorable opinion of someone shift to favorable, it can be huge. For example, if 7 percent of those who view Limbaugh unfavorably switch to a favorable view, that makes the numbers 37 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable. A statistical tie. Curious independent voters could make that a reality.

            The Democrats need to hope that things go well and Limbaugh doesn’t keep adding listeners as a result of this attack strategy. Otherwise, two years from now it may be Rush who is in the 50 percent-plus favorable column. That would be quite a feat for a talk show host, and a true threat to the Democrats.

            Finally, a correction. Last week I suggested that Speaker Nancy Pelosi flies in private airplanes. Instead, the planes are military ones, and were also provided to high government officials under the Bush administration. Even so, after the revelations of the last few days, I figure the public has heard plenty enough about Pelosi and planes.


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