But just days before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus takes place, there’s not much evidence to suggest that Fox News has crowned any one candidate as the eventual nominee.
There’s little question that Fox is an important news and opinion source for conservative voters, despite the relatively small audiences that cable news attracts (Fox News, the ratings leader, rarely reaches more than 2 million people at a time). Among Republican voters in Iowa, 37 percent said they got most of their news from Fox, making it the leading TV source, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll found. By contrast, a mere 2 percent said they relied on MSNBC, which has forged a more liberal identity.
But campaign watchers are hard-pressed to detect a tilt by the network toward one candidate. Even the two candidates who have worked for Fox News as on-air contributors, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, don’t appear to have had any special access or advantage during the campaign.
One candidate has enjoyed a disproportionate amount of airtime and number of appearances on Fox during the formative months of the campaign, according to figures compiled by Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group and longtime Fox News antagonist.
Herman Cain appeared on Fox News 73 times between June 1 and Dec. 18, accumulating more than 11 hours of exposure. This was far more than the runner-up, Gingrich, who racked up 8 hours 15 minutes of appearances during the same period.
Yet while Cain briefly held front-runner status, his star quickly faded amid allegations of an extramarital affair and claims of sexual harassment by women who worked for him in the 1990s. He suspended his campaign earlier this month. Gingrich has been on a similar roller coaster, coming back from near-dormancy to lead some polls before fading again.
“I have trouble seeing any sort of bias in terms of giving people coverage,” said Tim Groseclose, a professor of political science at UCLA and the author of “Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind.” “I’d say it’s been pretty even-handed.”
Fox News representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
If the network had a preferred candidate and was trying to shape the race, Groseclose said, polls in the early primary states would be similar. Yet Mitt Romney has made a late surge in Iowa, has led for months in New Hampshire and is far behind Gingrich in South Carolina.
After holding back for months, Romney’s appearances on Fox have increased over the past month, as has his standing in Iowa. Romney’s surge may suggest something about Fox’s value as a political megaphone, but it could also say even more about other factors, such as the wave of TV ads the deep-pocketed Romney has unleashed in Iowa in recent days.