I hate to say it, but David Brooks is right. Or at least partly right. Even the kingpins of talk radio are electorally negligible, for a reason Brooks doesn’t go into: when you divide up a core listenership — not just casual dial-surfers, but devoted listeners — of a few million people among the 48 continental states, you wind up with numbers that aren’t too impressive in a general election. (Those listeners aren’t evenly distributed, of course, but bigger radio markets have more voters of all kinds, so having a million hard-core listeners in the state of New York, distributed throughout several congressional districts, still is not overwhelming.) The cliche is absolutely true: all politics is local. Having an old-fashioned get-out-the-vote machine at the district and precinct levels counts for much more than having a diffuse national following of millions.
The numbers that talk radio commands might be big enough to have an effect in congressional primaries, but Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck don’t often take the time to target a primary in Poughkeepsie. A Senate primary in, say, Florida, on the other hand, is almost certainly too big for Dittoheads to tip.
That’s not to say talk radio isn’t the voice of the GOP. Limbaugh absolutely has more of a following among the Republican base than David Brooks has. When the average, non-political American thinks of what the GOP is all about, he’ll think of talk radio (which he may not have heard, but has certainly heard of) in the absence of any serious alternative. There are no political figures — except Sarah Palin! — or “conservative” institutions prominent enough to stand for the Republican Party in the public mind. No Goldwater, no Reagan, no pre-neocon National Review, just Boehners and Pawlentys and blow-dried Romneys, all of whom make much less of an impression on the public than Glenn Beck.