Does Glenn Beck matter?

at 04:24 PM ET, 04/08/2011


T.V. host Glenn Beck addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on Saturday Feb. 20, 2010. (Jose Luis Magana - ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Glenn Beck flashed across the political atmosphere like few other figures in modern memory.

An unknown when he began his show on Fox News Channel in January 2009, Beck rose to be one of the most identifiable faces of network within a year’s time.

And then, just more than one year later, Beck was gone — or will be as he and FNC will part ways before the end of the year.

With the 27-month Beck arc coming to at least a temporary end, it’s worth looking at how much impact he really had on the country’s politics.

Because Beck is such a divisive figure — if you love him you really love him and if you don’t, well, you don’t -- it’s difficult to come up with any sort of objective criteria by which to measure his influence. That said, there are several ways to try — and we emphasize try — to tackle a non-partisan assessment of what he meant/means. Here are a few:

Ratings: When Beck started at FNC he averaged about two million viewers a week. There were ocassional unsustained spikes; on some days Beck had over three million viewers. Since last June, his numbers had been declining. Even so, his program remains the third highest rated show in cable news.

Followers: Beck was able to attract somewhere close to 100,000 people to a rally on the National Mall last year. Many said they were new to politics and motivated by their deep appreciation for Beck. The political message of the event was unclear, but the general sentiment was rejection of the current Democratic establishment. But when fellow comedian/pundits Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a rally on the Mall two months later, about twice as many people attended. Their audience was decidedly more liberal; the better turnout had zero implications for the fall election as Republicans won across-the-board victories.

Polls: Polling on Beck is mixed. In general he’s about as popular as he is unpopular. He was more popular than Pope Benedict in a December 2009 Gallup ‘most admired’ poll — but at about two percent for each man that doesn’t say much of anything. A September 2010 GWU-Politico poll found that independents were basically split on Beck — 36 percent said he had a positive impact on political debate in the country while 38 percent said he had a negative one. That suggests his appeal went beyond his ideological allies; he wasn’t just “preaching to the choir.”

Among likeminded Americans, Beck’s appeal is obviously greater. A CBS News poll from last April found that 59 percent of tea party supporters had a favorable view of Beck. But 57 percent said the same thing about former president George W. Bush, suggesting the talk show host had no unique pull with the movement . In a mid-2010 Washington Post survey, seven percent of tea party activists called Beck the national figure that best represented the movement. About twice as many people said former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Ideological reach: Outside of the number of people who listen to or identify with Beck, it’s also worth looking at the reach of his ideas in the political space.

Beck sparked controversy over the background of a previously anonymous Obama appointee, Van Jones, and Jones ultimately resigned*. National Endowment for the Arts staffer Yosi Sergant also resigned after being targeted by Beck.

There is some evidence that conservative voters ask Republican congressmen about Beck theories at town halls. Obscure economic books recommended by Beck have become bestsellers.

Assessing Beck’s true influence is somewhere close to impossible, however. His fast rise gave him a considerable level of prominence politically but it remains to be seen whether his equally fast fall will leave him as an afterthought (or not even that) when the 2012 election rolls around.

*Jones was accused of signing a 9/11 “truther” petition; he says he was misled and his name was put on the petition without his knowledge.

 
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