Very few people bother to vote in primaries. This is true even in contentious presidential elections where there are ton of nominees to choose from, such as the Obama vs. Clinton stand-off in 2008 or the Romney vs. A Cast of Clowns stand-off in 2012. For instance, only 9.4 million people voted in the Republican primary in 2012, out of over 56 million who voted for Romney in the general. For state and local offices, it's even lower turnout, which means that a handful of determined extremists can basically run the party, especially the Republican party, where the most wild-eyed fanatics just so happen to be the most dedicated voters.

This is how it works, therefore:

  1. Wild-eyed fanatics who are all hopped up on the latest bizarre theories and paranoias fed to them by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News choose the most right-leaning candidate out of the field. In major primaries---well, only the presidential one anymore---enough cooler heads show up that this may not happen, but on the state and especially local level, good luck to anyone who shows a bit of common sense, if they're up against someone who can speak pure Wingnut.
  2. Come the general election, at least in red states, a strong majority of white people automatically vote for the Republican, often with no idea how bad the politician they voted for really is. They vote Republican because being "conservative" is their identity as white people in red states, even if their understanding of that is no deeper than "guns are good and liberals are bad". If they really thought about it, they probably wouldn't be supportive of the ending Medicare/privatizing schools agenda that has become mainstream in the Republican party through the primary system, but the fear of becoming one of those hated liberals tends to override policy concerns.
  3. In some cases, however, certain politicians have been targeted---think Todd Akin---who thought themselves a shoo-in because of this process, but because relentless national attention to their fanatical views, enough reluctant Republicans switched their vote. After all, if you do it just this once---whether it's voting Democratic or sex with someone outside of your usual gender of preference---it doesn't mean you have to give up  your identity. While that's a good lever to pull for Democrats, it also have limited value, for this reason. Every time Democrats run a "look at this woman-hating fanatic!" campaign, they exhaust a number of people who are giving them their one lifetime vote for a Democrat.

I bring this up because Alex Pareene's article about Rush Limbaugh's declining audience is exciting news, but it's also worth contemplating that the decline is slow enough that Limbaugh himself may retire or pass away before his ratings decline below a point of controlling the Republican base. It is true that Limbaugh's numbers seem small enough:

The first thing to remember is that no one actually has any clue how many people listen to Limbaugh with any regularity. Limbaugh’s audience certainly sounds massive at 14 million weekly listeners, but that supposedly represents any person who tunes into Limbaugh’s show for any period of time over the course of a week. At any given period in his show, though, an average of three million people are tuned to Limbaugh. That’s not nothing, but it’s close. It wouldn’t crack the top 25 broadcast TV shows. And radio ratings involve even more guesswork and estimation (and spin) than television ratings. Limbaugh said his audience was “20 million” 20 years ago and people have just been repeating that number ever since, but no one actually has any clue.

That's a group that would have no real power in the United States...unless somehow they managed to gain control over a major political party that had a reliable set of voters who worry that their balls will fall off if they cross the line and vote their conscience instead of their identity. Which they can unfortunately do, because so few people vote in primaries. Fourteen million people is enough to supply all the primary voters you need to control the party twice over. On the state and local level, only a fraction of Limbaugh's audience is needed to turn his paranoia about "RINOs" into action, voting for the wingnuttiest of the wingnuts. That's why we have such fun characters in Congress as Michele Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, and Steve King, and why that faction is going to have pull and even, in some cases, complete control for a long ass time.