Roger Ailes runs the GOP: How the Fox News boss took over the presidential primaries

Which polls will determine who gets into the debates? It's all up to one egomaniacal television executive

Published July 31, 2015 4:15PM (EDT)

 (AP/Reed Saxon)
(AP/Reed Saxon)

Fox News typically plays an outsized role in shepherding the Republican party through its presidential nomination process, being America's only trustworthy and fair and balanced and honest television network. (Also: effectively serving as an adjunct of the Republican Party.) But its duties have expanded this cycle.

In introducing debate caps, the network set off an early, costly, and comical fight for name-recognition that conveniently filters back into stocked green rooms at Fox News studios in New York and Washington. Fox's decision to peg debate participation to meaningless national polls, instead of early state support or favorability ratings or some other, more useful measure of formidability, has changed the nature of early presidential campaigning. Instead of spending most of their time doing meet-and-greets in New Hampshire, candidates are trying to earn national media attention through whatever means necessary.

Fox News is further exercising its power by treating Donald Trump like a serious human being. Yes, this is a choice that editorial leaders must make. As New York Magazine's Gabriel Sherman, the expert on Fox News chief Roger Ailes, wrote last week, Ailes is ignoring direct orders from Rupert Murdoch by instructing certain on-air personalities to defend Trump. (Ailes, for example, told Eric Bolling to go on television and say nice things about Donald Trump. Perhaps he's passed a similar memo to others?) In stage-managing Trump's ascent, Ailes has reinforced the need for other candidates to get their oxygen where they can: namely, through Fox News television appearances.

Now, via Sherman again, we have the clearest look yet at precisely how much control Ailes is exerting over the process. When Fox announced the debate caps, it mentioned that top-ten participants would be determined by an average of the five most recent national polls "as recognized by Fox News." Sherman reports that Fox in no way has settled on a careful methodological approach to determining which polls will and won't be considered. It's basically up to old Roger Ailes and his own highly subjective determination of which polls will produce the greatest television rankings. And that means that candidates on the bubble of making the debate, like Rick Perry and John Kasich, have taken to personally lobbying the old crank.

The thinking among the strategists I spoke with is that Ailes faces conflicting impulses when it comes to choosing Perry or Kasich. On the one hand, Ailes is certainly hoping to produce the best television, which would give the unpredictable Perry the advantage. “People will want Perry in just because of the ‘oops’ factor,” one GOP media adviser said, referring to Perry’s infamous brain freeze from 2012. Others stressed Kasich’s close relationship with Ailes, an Ohio native. Before getting back into politics, Kasich hosted a weekly Fox show. “Roger likes Kasich,” a Fox insider told me. “Plus Roger knows it'll look awful if the sitting governor isn't on that stage.”

"One person close to the Perry campaign," Sherman adds, "told me that GOP fund-raiser and Ailes friend Georgette Mosbacher recently called Ailes on behalf of the former Texas Governor. Other strategists cautioned that selling Ailes too aggressively could backfire."

Is that true? Roger Ailes seems like the sort of tyrant who welcomes all to kiss his ass, and would take professional slights personally. That's why this might be the most subtly revealing part of Sherman's piece (emphasis ours):

“We don’t know what methodology they’re going to use. We’ve been asking the question and they haven’t shared,” says a Kasich adviser who, like all campaign sources I spoke with, agreed to speak on background for fear of angering Ailes.

I mean. Here are campaigns that have important and reasonable concerns, since entry into the primetime debates is perceived as a make-or-break moment for a candidacy... but are too scared about speaking in name to the press "for fear of angering Ailes." Modestly hurt Roger Ailes' feelings, and he might go ahead and kill your presidential candidacy. Just because he can.

Any television executive with a sense of decency might feel guilty about accepting such an extraordinary role in determining which candidate gets a presidential nomination. Roger Ailes is not one of them. And the candidates themselves can't really speak out about this insanity, because Roger will punish them.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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