Fox News' quiet coup: How its debate criteria give it total control over the early presidential process

Early national polls used to be throwaway noise. Now, thanks to Fox, they're all that matters

Published July 29, 2015 5:30PM (EDT)

Send out the white smoke: Fox News has made yet another alteration to its August 6 debate(s) criteria. No longer will a candidate have to demonstrate even a modicum of support among the American public to be included in the kids' table debate.

The previous Fox News requirement for inclusion in the 5 p.m. debate was a minimum of 1% polling in the five most recent national polls. But because 16 candidates are running, and Donald Trump has sucked up about one-quarter of the party's support and 175 trillion percent of media coverage, several "real" candidates are struggling to hit even 1%. Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki are hovering either slightly above or below the 1% figure. So even that basic criteria has got to go.

It may go without saying but the decision Fox News is making is not a political but a business decision. If the kids' debate only featured, say, John Kasich and Rick Santorum, that wouldn't make for a lively early-evening television spectacle. (Now that George Pataki's in the mix, though!...??) So we get it. Though as Conservatives, we here at Salon have trouble accepting Fox News' decision to lower standards just so everyone gets a trophy. If Lindsey Graham can't manage to secure 1% polling support through his constant babbling, then he is an unpopular politician who should be sent to Gitmo, not to a televised debate on America's Number-One Cable News Channel.

The whole concept of the debate caps, introduced by Fox News perhaps as a matter of necessity given the size of the field, has turned out to be a highly successful business decision. As we wrote the other day, the main way that candidates are trying to secure their placement in the Fox News debate has been... to go on Fox News all the time and say insane, attention-grabbing things that get people to turn on Fox News.

Politico has done a rough count of recent Fox News appearances by the presidential candidates.

1) Paul, 35 … 2) Huckabee, 31 … 3) Trump, 30 … 4) Perry, 24 … 5-6) Fiorina and Jindal, 20 each … 7) Cruz, 17 … 8) Santorum, 16 … 9) Rubio, 14 … 10-11) Carson and Graham, 12 each … 12-13) Kasich and Pataki, 11 each … 14) Christie, 7 … 15) Walker, 4 … 16) Bush, 3.

In terms of actually winning caucuses or primaries, going on Fox News all the time is not going to do the trick. Candidates like Paul, Huckabee, Perry, Fiorina, Jindal, Cruz, Santorum... okay, pretty much all of them... are not going to win either Iowa or New Hampshire by orienting their schedules around cable news hits in Washington or New York. The last two winners of the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, didn't get much airtime at all, but they did go out of their way to meet and talk with more or less each individual caucus-goer in Iowa several times over. (Same deal with John McCain and the New Hampshire primary, twice.) Usually the broader media coverage concerns would've been taken care of in the debates.

Now media coverage concerns are a prerequisite just to get into the debates. As a politics writer, this arrangement sits okay with me. When candidates like, say, Mike Huckabee eschew church basement dinners in Iowa for constant Fox News appearances shrieking maniacally about the Holocaust, that's some prime writing material. But maybe it's not the way a presidential primary process should be run.

A constant complaint from our political-science moral superiors is that political reporters pay too much attention to meaningless early polls. In most election years they would be correct. And even in this one, there are plenty of cases where they still are. Marco Rubio, for example, isn't in bad shape. His net favorability ratings are strong and he'll have plenty of money. Recent polls, though, have shown his support slipping, and that's led to some concerns in the press about how his campaign is flailing. He'll be just fine.

Political reporters' adherence to early horse-race polls is more defensible this cycle, though, thanks to Fox News' decision to hinge debate inclusion to national political polls. Now it's those polls, once meaningless, that are everything. Boosting support in national polls is what most of the candidates are orienting their summer strategies around, and so it's proper to analyze their actions (i.e., slapstick stunts) through that lens. It isn't the evil liberal media that's forcing Republican candidates to make fools of themselves so early in the process. It's Fox News. And they're doing an excellent job.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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