Talk Show Hosts as Candidates? Sounds Good in Theory

By Kenneth P. Vogel
|  Friday, Jan 8, 2010  |  Updated 9:15 PM EDT
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Talk Show Hosts as Candidates? Sounds Good in Theory

Getty Images, NBC

Glenn Beck, Ed Schultz, Lou Dobbs.

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Ed Schultz for Senate? Lou Dobbs for president? Maybe Glenn Beck as Sarah Palin’s vice presidential running mate?

It’s been a heady few months for talk show hosts who like to think of themselves not just opining about what’s wrong with Washington or their state capital but being able to do something about it. And with the 2010 election cycle just getting underway, there’s likely to be much more speculation about talkers becoming candidates.

After all, the popularity of those who take calls and help Americans vent has never been greater. Talk show stars are household names, their books automatic bestsellers, their political pronouncements capable of launching tens of thousands of emails and phone calls, and even massive protest marches. And the once-bright line between media and politics has all but vanished, while activists on both the left and right are frustrated with their parties’ elected leaders.

Plus, flirting with a possible campaign can’t hurt the ratings.

But just because the big egos and nimble communication skills that thrive in talk media would seem an ideal fit for politics doesn’t mean good talkers make good candidates.

In fact, for every Al Franken — who won a 2008 election for a Senate seat from Minnesota after a three-year stint hosting a show on the liberal Air America Radio — there are at least two talkers like Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host who explored but ultimately decided against a 2010 campaign for Senate from Pennsylvania, or John Carlson, a Seattle radio talker who won the 2000 GOP gubernatorial nomination in Washington state only to be crushed by the incumbent Democratic governor — and current commerce secretary — Gary Locke.

The obstacles for would-be talker candidates are significant.

Many lack the political and fundraising connections of career politicians and would be required to take steep pay cuts (Atlanta-based syndicated radio talker Neal Boortz quips on his website that he's "toying with the idea of running for President on the Libertarian Party ticket” but that winning "would be a financial disaster” for him) or put their host networks in a tricky spot. Plus, they’d be subjecting themselves to heightened scrutiny of their personal and professional lives, including having to explain the sometimes outrageous statements that make great radio or TV, but also make their shows’ archives a treasure trove for opposition researchers.

Even more fundamentally, the formula for success in modern talk media is nearly opposite that in politics, according to Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of TALKERS Magazine, a trade publication that monitors talk media and its personalities.

“It’s a niche medium and, in order to be successful, you have to play to extreme niche audiences, and that doesn’t translate to electoral politics,” he said. “The mathematics of talk radio, in particular, are different than the mathematics of politics. You can be No. 1 in talk radio and have a five share. It takes at least a 45 share to be elected.”

Still, he acknowledged that talkers are increasingly looked to as political figures and vice versa, from Fox News’s Beck launching a political organizing effort and being talked about as a 2012 running mate for prospective GOP presidential candidate Palin, to failed 2008 Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson hosting talk shows on Fox and Westwood One, respectively.

Franken, a Democrat who laid the groundwork for his campaign by assiduously working the county party rubber chicken circuit, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), appear to be the only two former professional talk show hosts in Congress, though J.D. Hayworth, a hard-right talker who served six terms in Congress from Arizona before losing his 2006 reelection bid is considering challenging Sen. John McCain in the state’s 2010 GOP Senate primary.

So far, the list of declared 2010 talker-candidates is slim. It includes Jennifer Horn, a former talk radio host in New Hampshire who is seeking the GOP nomination for a congressional seat (she won the nomination in 2008, but lost the general election), and Paul Schiffer, a tea party activist and conservative talker making his second bid for the Republican nomination for a U.S. House seat in Ohio.

 

More common are teasers like Beck, Huckabee, CNN refugee Dobbs, former California talker Larry Elder (who is contemplating a 2010 challenge to Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat), CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow (who considered but ultimately decided against running for Senate from Connecticut in 2010), and Schultz, the liberal MSNBC host whom Democrats are pushing to run in 2010 for the North Dakota seat Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan announced this week that he is vacating.

Though Schultz in a Thursday television interview said that he is “not running,” he didn’t entirely close the door on a campaign, saying “I won't say ‘no’ to anything.”

His comments, which came on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" (hosted by congressman-turned-talk show host Joe Scarborough, who rejected speculation that he might seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination), and similar ones on his own radio and TV shows did little to dampen Democratic calls for his candidacy.

One low-level “draft” movement is already under way, while the Progressive Change Campaign Committee PAC was considering launching a more concerted effort.

And North Dakota State Senate Democratic Leader David O'Connell told POLITICO he was trying to arrange for Schultz to address the state Party’s executive committee the next time it meets.

“Ed Schultz is known throughout the whole state, and he could raise a pile of money to run a great campaign,” said O'Connell.

Though he conceded that potential opponents might try to dust off Schultz’s more controversial rhetoric to use against him, O'Connell said, "What I’m hearing is Republicans don’t want to see Ed run."

Schultz is likely to run and "would be the next senator from North Dakota if he did," predicted Bill Press. A Schultz friend and fellow liberal talk show host, Press quit his job as a Los Angeles television political commentator to run for California state insurance commissioner in 1990, losing in the Democratic primary.

The line between political talk and politics has broken down substantially since then, said Press, who later served as chairman of the California Democratic Party and said he was courted to fill the same role at the Democratic National Committee.

"Media and politics are two sides of the same coin today and the coin is celebrityhood and ego gratification," said Press. "And if I were not so cynical I might say some form of public service, but I am cynical."

Talk show hosts have been known to exaggerate the degree to which they’re being wooed to run as "a form of self promotion," said right-leaning radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, who narrowly lost a Pennsylvania state legislative race in 1986, while he was in law school.

He said he might consider running again, but not until his children are grown.

Other prominent talkers, such as liberal MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who dismissed "the idea of compromising my ideals enough to run for office," said they would never do it.

Conservative Mark Levin, who once served a term on a school board, said he thinks he "can have more influence doing what I do."

There are some talkers, Levin said, who "would make good or great candidates and officials, and others who would not." Levin put Schultz in the latter category, calling him "a buffoon. He'd be a perfect liberal candidate. He'd also lose. I'd encourage him to run and run often."

But Dave Ross, a liberal Seattle radio host, said Schultz should jump at the chance if the state Democratic Party offers its backing and polling suggests he is within 10 percentage points of likely GOP candidate Gov. John Hoeven.

Washington state Democratic leaders recruited Ross to run for an open congressional seat in 2004, and though he won the party’s nomination, he narrowly lost the general election to then-King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, whose campaign accused Ross of being “all talk.”

"But I enjoyed it," said Ross, "threw myself into every aspect including the fundraising and emerged with a lot more respect for politicians and the process."

But he admitted he didn’t help his chances with his “tendency as a talk host to try out new ideas in speeches.”

As for Schultz, Ross said, "if he wins, he gets a chance to serve his country in a way relatively few do, which is why I said yes." And, he said "career-wise, the publicity can't hurt."

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