The talk radio split between Trump and Cruz

Ted Cruz defends campaign on 'Hannity'
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Story highlights

  • Brian Rosenwald: One thing that would unite warring factions in conservative talk radio would be an establishment attempt to rally around a third choice
  • In upcoming primaries, talk radio likely won't swing voters toward Cruz as in Wisconsin

Brian Rosenwald, a fellow and instructor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is writing a book on the development of talk radio and its political and policy impact. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Many observers credited Ted Cruz's primary victory in Wisconsin April 5 largely to the harangues of the state's influential cadre of talk radio hosts. The state's six biggest talkers fiercely resisted the candidacy of Donald Trump, which produced a few testy interviews with the business mogul. Several of these hosts wield significant clout with Wisconsin's conservatives, and their stature and platform provided the #NeverTrump movement with a powerful megaphone.

Brian Rosenwald
Yet with Trump securing a big victory last week in New York and his opponents grasping for ways to block him from getting to 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination in the remaining primaries, the question of talk radio's role looms large.
    Wisconsin aside, is Cruz really the darling of talk radio and will the medium's advocacy prevent Trump from securing the Republican nomination?
    In actuality, the campaign has splintered conservatives and talk radio bears the scars of these fissures as would any corner bar in a conservative neighborhood and many conservative households. The unity of Wisconsin talk radio cloaked these divisions.
    By contrast, New York talk radio hosts voiced an array of positions on the race. They displayed far less animosity towards Trump, with many talkers embracing the billionaire and conducting friendly interviews with him.
    And in reality, it is New York, not Wisconsin, that more likely provides a glimpse into the race's future.

    Two ideal candidates for conservative radio?

    Both of the leading GOP candidates have qualities that captivate talk radio hosts and listeners. Trump embodies the ethos of the medium -- the willingness to say what many people think privately, but refrain from declaring publicly for fear of provoking charges of bigotry.
    Many hosts and listeners find Trump's unvarnished commentary on issues like immigration and trade refreshing. At the same time, though, Trump's willingness to deviate from conservative orthodoxy and to descend into the gutter troubles many talkers.
    Cruz, meanwhile, is in many ways conservative talk radio's dream candidate. Passionately conservative on everything from the budget to cultural issues, the senator also scorns compromise. Like Trump, he enjoys poking Washington politicians in the eye, and comfortably claims the mantle of outsider.
    Two such appealing options have split hosts in the remaining primary states. And yet even some Cruz advocates, like Indianapolis' Greg Garrison, have pledged to support Trump as the Republican nominee because they view Democrat Hillary Clinton as the true enemy.
    Something similar is playing out at the national level. While some major hosts like Glenn Beck and Mark Levin have gushed about Cruz and derided Trump, others, including Michael Savage and Lars Larson, have championed the current frontrunner. Meanwhile, a third group of hosts, including talk radio superstar Rush Limbaugh, have at times applauded and defended both candidates, while refraining from weighing in definitively.
    As Sean Hannity learned recently after encountering criticism from fellow conservatives for supposedly tilting towards Trump, being perceived to favor a candidate creates headaches for a host.
    Hannity dismissed these assertions, and affirmed his neutrality. He reasoned: "I've decided that I'm just going to remain neutral and give you access to the candidates because no one else is doing it. And I think it's a good service to my audience. So what. At the end of the day, if it's Cruz or Trump, whoever ends up winning, I'm going to support them."
    But avoiding accusations of picking sides is easier said than done in the heated atmosphere of 2016. This past week, Hannity conducted an interview with Cruz that grew heated after the Texas senator accused Hannity of questioning him about a topic -- poaching delegates on a second ballot at the Republican convention --- that he contended only Trump supporters cared about. Hannity exploded in response: "Every time I have you on the air and I ask a legitimate question, you try to throw this in my face, I'm getting sick of it!"

    Dilemma facing radio hosts

    The criticism that Hannity experienced epitomizes the dilemma confronting hosts. Many hosts sense that Trump has captured the hearts of much of their audience, meaning that trashing him risks alienating listeners, and damaging the bottom line. But throwing their weight behind Trump threatens to infuriate Cruz's fans in the audience.
    Those talk radio hosts seething because peers like Hannity refuse to denounce Trump -- which they see as a betrayal of conservative principles -- fail to comprehend the fundamental purpose of their business. As Hannity declared in defense of his coverage, "I'm not a journalist, I'm a talk show host." And talkers, unlike journalists, face no obligation to pose tough questions to ideological or political bedfellows.
    Ted Cruz defends campaign on 'Hannity'
    Ted Cruz defends campaign on 'Hannity'

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    Ted Cruz defends campaign on 'Hannity' 01:47
    Instead, their task is to reach the largest possible audience by delivering what listeners want. In Hannity's case, that meant probing Cruz's delegate strategy because it's an issue about which he fielded many questions from listeners.
    Such criticism also overlooks how well Trump articulates the frustrations that talkers and listeners have expressed for decades, and how he ripped his unfiltered and hyperbolic style from the talk radio playbook. Hosts cannot avoid that Trump, as much as Cruz, is the candidate of talk radio.
    But while talk radio hosts are probably too divided in the remaining states to fundamentally alter the campaign landscape, there is one place where they could have an outsize impact -- at the Republican convention.

    What would unite the talkers

    Nothing could bridge the chasm between the Cruz and Trump talk radio camps faster than an attempt to bypass both candidates when selecting the Republican nominee. An open convention would be a bonanza to the hundreds of hosts who will flock to Cleveland to broadcast from radio row. Yet, an open convention also risks unleashing the wrath of talk radio on the party, if the establishment elevates an alternative to Cruz and Trump on the convention floor.
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    Indeed, Limbaugh has already cautioned listeners that the establishment may try to steal the nomination from Trump and Cruz if neither achieves the magic number of 1,237 delegates.
    To Limbaugh, the establishment's biases are transparent. "Make no mistake, the Republican powers that be do not want Trump, and they don't want Cruz," Limbaugh said. "They did want Jeb. They wouldn't mind Kasich. They are drooling over Paul Ryan. And they would take Romney again. So that's the immediate universe of people that they might be thinking could be their salvation."
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    If such a scenario actually unfolds, talk radio would no doubt howl about yet another betrayal by the loathed Republican establishment that, in talkers' view, regularly subverts the will of conservatives. Such fury could either be steered toward calls to boycott the GOP nominee, or channeled into the construction of a third party effort to challenge both the Democratic and Republican nominees.
    Talk show hosts could easily transform this story into a black and white, good vs. evil, talk radio friendly narrative. They will distill all of the convoluted procedural machinations and arcane rules down to a simple tale: the establishment snatching away listeners' hard-earned victory, because it will never allow a true conservative to be elected. Such a narrative, if it took hold, could doom not just the GOP's hopes in November, but the very future of the party.