Fox News’ presidential town halls have the Democratic primary field at odds over whether it’s permissible to appear on conservatives’ preferred network, but most voters say they’re fine with it.
More than 60 percent of Democrats said they think it’s acceptable for candidates from their party to appear at the town halls, a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found. Just 17 percent of Democrats said it’s inappropriate for the White House hopefuls to agree to the primetime events.
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The results could reassure 2020 Democratic hopefuls who want to use Fox News appearances to reach out to conservative-leaning voters — particularly after South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg received days of media attention and stirred up tension at the network with his on-air critiqueof Fox’s opinion hosts during Sunday’s town hall.
“Democratic presidential hopefuls who hold Fox News town halls can expect their primary voters to approve of the forums on the hot-button network,” said Morning Consult vice president Tyler Sinclair. “Notably, 64 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of self-identified liberals say it’s appropriate for 2020 candidates to appear on Fox News town hall programs, compared with 17 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of liberals who say it’s inappropriate.”
The town halls have caused some sniping among the Democratic ranks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the network a “hate-for-profit racket” last week, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has also said she would decline an invitation to appear. New data isn’t going to make Warren budge on the issue.
“Elizabeth doesn’t base her positions or values on polling,” a spokesperson told POLITICO. “And we’re not giving Fox News an hour town hall so they can raise money and raise their credibility off of it.”
But four 2020 contenders have taken Fox News up on its offers of air time so far, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, who appears on June 2. And others have made clear they’d go on if asked, regardless of the drama.
“A lot of people in my party were critical of me doing this, and I get where that’s coming from, especially when you see what goes on with some of the opinion hosts on this network,” Buttigieg said, citing Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham by name. “There is a reason why anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem.”
The events have also caused some strain with President Donald Trump, who told supporters at a rally in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, Monday that “something strange is going on at Fox. Something very strange.” Trump described Buttigieg as “knocking the hell out of Fox” on air.
People close to the network said the town halls are generally good for Fox News, both in terms of ratings and giving the network access to top presidential candidates. But the events have also highlighted the tension between the news and opinion sides of the network in uncomfortable ways.
One Fox News employee said Buttigieg should have gone on Carlson’s and Ingraham’s shows if he wanted to criticize them for, respectively, implying that immigration makes America “dirtier” and comparing detention facilities for immigrant children to “summer camps.” The employee also noted that Chris Wallace, who was moderating the session, didn’t push back.
“If Buttigieg has a problem with primetime hosts,” the employee said, “he should be willing to say it on their shows.”
A person close to Fox News also noted that hosts like Carlson “have people all the time that disagree with him, and he debates them and challenges them, and they say things to his face that are less than positive.”
Eric Bolling, a former Fox News host, said he “would have expected at least some pushback from Wallace.”
“It’s not what Mayor Buttigieg may have said about me if I were still a host there. And it’s not what President Trump tweeted afterwards about giving airtime to Democrats,” Bolling, who left the network following harassment allegations and now hosts Sinclair’s “America This Week,” told POLITICO in an email. “It’s what moderator Chris Wallace didn’t say that would piss me off if it were me.”
“Fox News’ extraordinary success is due to dedicated news journalists, dynamic opinion hosts, diverse contributors and our tremendous staff behind the scenes on every platform,” a network spokesperson said in a statement. “We support and are proud of this great team who has kept us No. 1 in cable for many years.”
Fox News’ opinion hosts didn’t take kindly to Buttigieg’s appearance. Carlson called Buttigieg a “slippery demagogue” on Monday night’s show when discussing the candidate’s views on abortion. Ingraham, alongside an on-screen graphic reading “Reboot-I-Gieg,” accused the candidate of passing off “political pablum as some type of high-minded oratory” in his appearance on the network.
Buttigieg’s comments didn’t go over well on the president’s favorite morning show, either. “If you feel that negative about it, don’t come,” said “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade. “Because for him to go out there and take shots at our primetime lineup without going on our primetime lineup shows, to me, absolutely no courage.”
Another person who works on one of Fox’s opinion shows brushed off Buttigieg’s appearance. “To be honest, I don’t care what the candidates do. We invite them on our show, and they don’t want to come,” this person said, later adding: “Is there a rub between opinion and news at Fox? Yeah, of course there is.”
“I don’t really give a shit about what everyone else [at Fox] is doing,” this person also said when asked about the relationship between Fox News opinion hosts and the news anchors.
Senior political analyst Brit Hume, who argued in response to Trump that the news network has to cover both political parties, said Monday on Fox News that Buttigieg not only stood out from the current Democratic field but is the “most impressive candidate I’ve seen since the emergence of Barack Obama.”
“I’m quite confident that an awful lot of Democrats tuned in,” Hume said.
“It doesn’t ever make sense for a politician to shun a whole segment of an audience, a potential audience,” he added. “Politics is about addition, not subtraction.”
A former Fox News commentator agreed, pointing out that Buttigieg got a huge platform to bash the network: “For Democratic candidates, it’s their clickbait to attack Fox hosts.”
The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll surveyed 1,995 registered voters from May 17-19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Morning Consult is a nonpartisan media and technology company that provides data-driven research and insights on politics, policy and business strategy.
More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents: Toplines: https://politi.co/2VTyhqJ | Crosstabs: https://politi.co/2VHMKB4