For self-anointed “voice of the common man” Bill Cunningham, his mid-day talk show on WLW-AM radio is nothing more than two and a half hours that will, on a good day, provide entertainment for thousands of listeners who are primarily — like Cunningham—middle-aged, middle-class white guys.

And if along the way, Cunningham just happens to shape history — maybe help elect the next President of the United States by nudging Ohio into the Republican column — well, that’s an unexpected consequence that’s perfectly acceptable to the shock jock.

But vast right-wing conspiracies? A top-secret strategy outlined on a napkin? Conservatives marching in philosophical lockstep with AM radio’s most provocative pontificators: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Cunningham?

Well, not quite, even though Cunningham is convinced he played a significant role in Hillary Clinton’s victory in Ohio’s Democratic primary in March.

It began Feb. 26, when Cunningham’s warm-up at a McCain rally here sizzled into international media attention, and even a joke in “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live. Cunningham was pilloried for tossing “red meat” to the Republican faithful at Memorial Hall. “Now we have a hack, Chicago-style, Daley politician picturing himself as change,” Cunningham said at one point during his 10-minute routine. “When he gets done with you, all you’re going to have in your pockets is change.” Cunningham ripped into the national media for what he sees as a liberal bias and, referring to Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said she “looks like death warmed over.”

After McCain spoke, he condemned Cunningham’s disparaging remarks about Barack Obama — including repeated use of his middle name, Hussein. Back on the air with his nationally syndicated “The Big Show,” Cunningham was livid.

“By the time the Republican wagons had pulled into town, the election was over,” declares Cunningham, looking back on what happened. “(John) McCain had been designated by the mainstream media to be the Republican nominee, and the conservative vote was chopped up like in a Cuisinart by (Mike) Huckabee and (Mitt) Romney.

“Conservatives had no where to go March 4 until your humble servant said, ‘Let’s all vote for Hillary,’ and I spent two days on the radio encouraging conservatives to vote for Hillary in the Ohio Democratic primary because that would mean your vote was relevant,” Cunningham boasts.

“It would continue to wreak havoc among the Democrats, and when the Democrats are having confusion and anger, that’s got to be a good thing,” Cunningham goes on to say. “And thirdly, it would derail the Obamanation, and I’ve believed for a very long time that (Barack) Obama is a very dangerous man because Obama is a liar and a hypocrite relative to Jeremiah Wright” — a reference to explosive comments made by the former pastor of Obama’s church in Chicago.

After being denounced for his McCain rally rant, Cunningham characterized the presumptive GOP nominee’s comments as being “thrown under the Straight Talk Express” — the name given to McCain’s bus in his 2000 presidential bid. Cunningham hasn’t cooled off.

“I’m done,” Cunningham says now, when asked if he would play any further role in the campaign. “McCain stabbed me in the back and kicked me in the balls and I’m done with McCain.” Yet Cunningham acknowledged later that he would probably “hold my nose” and vote for the Republican over a Democrat in November.


THE DEMOCRATIC SWITCHEROO

Ohio will once again be a battleground state this November, and possibly the state that decides who will be president, for the second election in a row. Conceivably, a few hundred votes difference in Southwest Ohio, the heart of Cunningham country, could swing the outcome.

So, is talk radio’s influence overrated? The outcome of the Ohio Democratic primary in March has some political observers wondering if “Willie” is only a blowhard with a pipedream of influence.

Before the Ohio and Texas primaries, Cunningham and Limbaugh urged Republicans to switch to vote for Clinton in those so-called open primaries. The theory among some conservatives: The New York senator is more beatable than Obama, so helping her win the Democratic nomination sets up a GOP thumping in November.

It’s impossible to determine precisely how many people were influenced by the Limbaugh/Cunningham stratagem. But it’s clear that thousands of voters switched parties throughout Ohio. In Butler County, where 21,600 voters cast ballots as Democrats in 2007, about 50,000 asked for Democratic ballots in March, observes Betty McGary, director of the Butler County Board of Elections.

“I had never seen anything like this in the past with crossover voting,” McGary remarks. But she isn’t convinced that radio talk show hosts had much impact. “I think they had a very minute role. They (the voters) were not in a very good mood this election year.”

McGary’s counterpart in Hamilton County, Pamela Swafford, agrees that “more people than normal” crossed over in the primary. But she won’t know the exact numbers until her office counts all of the “10W forms” that Ohio voters are supposed to sign when they switch parties. The March primary results are still awaiting official certification by county and state election officials.

In theory, signing the 10W form demonstrates a commitment to a party’s principles. Signing it under false pretenses is a felony offense, officials say.

“If they crossed over to screw up the Democratic primary, that’s a crime,” says Tim Burke, who chairs the Hamilton County Democratic Party. He points out that Ohio’s primary system was created to allow the parties to determine which candidates are the strongest — not to enable voters of one party to decide which candidate they want their party’s nominee to face in November.

Burke is convinced that the historic battle between Obama and Clinton is the primary reason why more Democrats went to the polls March 4. Hamilton County, he says, experienced a net gain of some 90,000 voters who cast Democratic ballots, compared to the previous primary. Of the approximately 165,000 Democratic ballots in the presidential primary, Obama received 103,294 votes while Clinton was the choice of 59,434 people who went to the polls. Burke says the number of Republican ballots dropped from about 90,000 to 80,000 compared to the last primary.

A RADICAL SHIFT

If those numbers hold up, the radical shift is eye-popping. Did the percentage of Hamilton County Democratic ballots cast increase by 150 percent, and the percentage of Republican ballots drop 11 percent, just because voters of both parties are more excited about Clinton-Obama than John Edwards versus John Kerry in 2004?

Burke and his Republican counterpart, Alex M. Triantafilou, both stress that they don’t know if an extraordinary number of voters crossed over to cast ballots as Democrats for the primary.

“I’ve heard that there was a fair amount, but I can’t say that it occurred in any large number,” Triantafilou emphasizes. “When you do that, you swear an allegiance to the party and we certainly discourage that practice (crossing over) because we want to keep them home in the party.”

Triantafilou, who didn’t become party chairman until after the Cunningham/ McCain flap, doesn’t sound too concerned about the long-range impact of crossover voters. “I think the momentum shift is going our way. I think the Democratic candidates have peaked early.”

Leo Jennings, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s office, maintains that there are no plans to pursue charges against anyone for switching parties to disrupt the Democrats. “Unfortunately, there’s no law against lying through your teeth.”



RILED UP FOR ENTERTAINMENT


Lincoln Ware is the most popular talk show host on WDBZ-AM. Ratings logged by “The Buzz of Cincinnati” are a minute fraction of powerhouse WLW, but WDBZ is influential among politically active people in African-American communities.

Ware is no fan of Tim Burke — he says the Democratic chair should be replaced — but agrees with Burke that quite a few voters committed fraud when they switched parties in the primary.

“They didn’t do that because they love Hillary. They did it because they wanted her to beat Obama so McCain would go up against her,” observes Ware, who switched back to the Democrats after voting as a Republican because “It’s the only way to get anything done in the county.”

Ware, whose daily talk show goes head-to-head with Cunningham, wasn’t at all surprised by his competitor’s comments. “I know a lot of my callers think he’s a racist or a bigot and that he hates blacks, and I know him personally, and I know that’s not the case,” Ware comments. “So anything he says, I know it’s for the entertainment value — to get people riled up. That’s what he does.”

Ware doesn’t believe that talk show hosts can dictate how listeners vote: “I don’t know how many minds we can change, but people get a lot of the information that they need to get about a lot of the candidates from radio and they decide for themselves.”

Michael Harrison, who publishes Talkers magazine, a trade journal for talk radio, notes that it’s impossible to measure talk radio’s precise impact on an election. But one thing is certain: Talk listeners turn off their radios long enough to vote. “Talk radio has, per capita, more registered voters listening than any other form of media.”



SWORN OFF TALK RADIO

Jonathan Love, a self-described moderate who had anchored the afternoon drive show that followed Ware’s on WDBZ until January, says he has “sworn off” talk radio, noting he sees a shift in emphasis away from community service on talk stations.

Unlike Ware, Love isn’t in Cunningham’s corner in the McCain controversy.

“What John McCain did — I applaud it, because I think for too long people have let talk radio hosts lead them into a course of action, and it was refreshing to see someone stand up to his base (of support) and reject the negativity that comes out of talk radio, which I think is the saddest part about talk radio. It’s more a destructive force than a constructive force,” Love maintains.

But while Love talks about the responsibilities that radio stations and talk show hosts have to the communities they serve, Cunningham makes it clear that like any good conservative, he and WLW are driven by capitalism.

“Management would support Air America (the struggling liberal talk show network) if it brought them money,” Cunningham claims. “They don’t care (about political positions). I bring them money, so they like it. They say don’t defame anybody and don’t violate FCC rules.

“Management doesn’t care about politics. They care about ratings and revenues,” Cunningham continues. “Number one, you have to provide entertainment. It’s not about politics, it’s about entertainment, and politics is just one of the acts that a good ringmaster brings on stage.

What you do in talk radio is when I get on the air I’m thinking, ‘OK, what is the average 40-year-old man thinking about today?’ And I don’t want to force him to think and talk about something he doesn’t want to think and talk about. It doesn’t work.”