Republican presidential debate: For first televised clash, one Fox rules the roost in Cleveland

Usborne in the USA: It's a virtuous circle. The higher the ratings on the Murdoch-owned network, the more the GOP panders to it

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The Independent Online

Republicans are meat eaters, so on the eve of the forst big debate in Cleveland, it made sense to repair to Red, the best steakhouse in town.

Sure enough. Here, the former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu is swapping notes with top consultant Alex Castellanos. There, Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political reporter, is quizzing Senator Lindsey Graham, a presidential candidate. And so on. Yet, I see no one at any table from Fox News. 

This could be because the folks at Fox News are gods and we are mere gossiping mortals. In fact they were all busy doing a live interview with another (more important) candidate, Senator Marco Rubio, from the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena where the debate was to take place. No one else had access to the venue 24 hours in advance. But as I say, Fox rules the chicken roost.

That Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has an outsize influence on Republican politics, especially during presidential election season, is old news. But it was never more evident than in the run-up to this first primary debate of this new cycle. In fact, Fox pulled off something remarkable: the debate became a primary, months before the first actual primary votes, in New Hampshire, are due to be cast.

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Rupert Murdoch

Naturally, the party chose Fox to host the first and inevitably most anticipated of what will be a series of nine Republican debates between now and February. In the spring, Fox announced its rules: because the field of candidates was growing so large, only 10 would be invited to the main event. Those not polling in the top 10 in a sampling of national polls right before debate night would be excluded. Cue a furore.

The complaint is that Fox has winnowed the field before voters in the state-by-state primary and caucus process have had a look in. The unlucky seven (there are 17 Grand Old Party runners in all) were relegated to a 5pm debate. They could hang around to watch the primetime 9pm debate if they liked. As Republican pollster Frank Luntz said: “If you’re not on that stage, you’re irrelevant, you don’t matter.”

Has Fox therefore hijacked the process? Is Mr Murdoch now the Republican Party’s kingmaker and gatekeeper? Or, rather, should we attribute that to Roger Ailes, who has run Fox News since its inception, and who, according to some media accounts, split recently with Mr Murdoch over how seriously to take Donald Trump. That Mr Murdoch had misgivings about the mogul didn’t much concern Mr Ailes.

Democrats and liberals could never abide Fox. They watch MSNBC, which in Cleveland had to make do broadcasting from a stage erected in a back alley far from the debate arena. Or Jon Stewart – no longer of Comedy Central. He has been among the loudest complainers about this debate. “Basically, they’re going to look at the polls and Roger Ailes is going to pick whoever he wants,” he recently offered. And the bottom seven who didn’t make the cut are cross, of course. Mr Graham, before he knew he was to be relegated, went on Fox to accuse them of trying to destroy the primary and caucus process. When Rick Santorum fell into the bottom tier, Mr Santorum himself demanded that the network apologise to Republican voters.

Among our steak lovers, Mr Castellanos, who advised the campaigns of George W Bush and Mitt Romney, is bothered. “We kind of all wanted candidates to be treated fairly and treated the same way,” he says. “The idea that a TV network is telling us who we will be allowed to fall in love with, well that’s a little disturbing.” He laments most that Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the field, had been denied a spot on the main stage. “Put up against those nine stiff white guys in suits she would have popped.”

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Clearly the Fox factor makes candidates behave differently. Over the past three months, those who made the top 10 appeared on the network no less than 273 times, according to the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters. Their campaigns went wild buying advertising on Fox. And candidates spent more time with stunts trying to push up their national poll numbers than campaigning in New Hampshire. Hence one campaign video showing Ted Cruz cooking bacon on the barrel of a gun. As every president should.

Mr Castellanos concedes, however, that the Republican Party should wake up to the fact that the old state-by-state model is doomed anyway by modern technology. The process has “been taken away from the political machinery by communications and by technology”. Primaries are becoming national events.

Mr Sununu was Governor of New Hampshire (as well as chief of staff to George W Bush) and thus has more reason than anyone to mourn if the old primary order is being torn down. But he is not a sentimental type apparently. His view: more power to Fox and Messrs Murdoch and Ailes. The network’s primetime ratings are more than CNN’s and MSNBC’s combined.

“There is a reason for that, it’s because all the rest of you media are so crappy,” Mr Sununu proclaims, smiling. Of course Republican candidates beg to go on Fox and advertise on Fox but it’s the network everyone is watching. Well, every Republican voter is watching. To be clear, Mr Sununu adds: “Everything they are saying about it being overweighted is correct, but there are reasons for that. The reason Republicans are on Fox is because the Republican electorate can’t stand the rest of the media.”

It is a virtuous circle for Fox. The higher the ratings the more the party panders to it. Mr Sununu points out Fox was surely happy that its candidate carve-up caused so much noise: “Look how clever they were doing this. Can you image how much extra audience they are going to get because it’s controversial?” Memo to CNN and MSNBC: get smarter. Meanwhile, we will know those ratings numbers in the morning.

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