CLAREMONT, N.H. — In the gymnasium of Stevens High School, just before 7 p.m., Chris Wallace stepped onto the red-carpeted, Fox News-branded stage for his first-ever town hall. The host of “Fox News Sunday” was preparing to interview Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
Wearing a dark suit and blue tie, Wallace looked the way he often does: respectable and slightly amused. The son of famed newsman Mike Wallace, he has consistently stood out as one of the news personalities who grant Fox credibility in corners where prime-time hosts Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are reviled.
Chris Wallace sat on the right of the stage, Buttigieg on the left. Two of the early arrivals — gray-haired men — chose seats in the front row with a perfect view of Wallace. They were there to see him.
Wallace’s fans were on to something. Increasingly, Fox News is the star of the Democratic race. After years of playing the culture wars, the cable news network has become a key flash point in the 2020 race. And the candidates are in the same position as the rest of the country, not to mention the Murdoch family who controls the network, and even the president of the United States: What to do about Fox News?
“I actually think, whether you like his opinions or not, that Mayor Pete has a lot of substance,” Wallace had said earlier in the day on Howard Kurtz’s Sunday morning Fox show, noting Buttigieg’s “fascinating biography.”
Sure enough, Fox’s most loyal viewer was watching, and he took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon: “Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete, as Chris Wallace likes to call him. Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems.”
President Trump quoted Wallace’s kind comments about Buttigieg and then complained that he didn’t get the same favorable treatment: “Gee, he never speaks well of me.” He then compared Wallace unfavorably with his father and tried out his nickname for Buttigieg, Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine.
“Say this for Buttigieg,” tweeted Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume, in response to Trump. “He’s willing to be questioned by Chris Wallace, something you’ve barely done since you’ve been president. Oh, and covering candidates of both parties is part of the job of a news channel.”
All this before Wallace’s discussion with Buttigieg even started.
The day after the Buttigieg town hall aired, Trump continued to take aim at Fox News. At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania he asked: “What’s going on with Fox? What’s going on there? They’re putting more Democrats on than you have Republicans. Something strange is going on at Fox! . . . Did you see this guy last night? I did want to watch, you’ve always got to watch the competition if you call it that. And he was knocking the hell out of Fox and Fox is putting him on. Somebody is going to have to have to explain the whole Fox deal to me,” Trump said.
The back-and-forth is indicative of the divisions within and around Fox News. President Trump does his best to support the Fox News hosts who support him. He has invited Sean Hannity onstage at his rallies. He personally called Rupert Murdoch to get Jeanine Pirro back on the air after she was suspended. But on Sunday, he tried to shame the network for giving Buttigieg and other Democrats airtime.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidates have taken very different approaches to the network. In March, the Democratic National Committee barred Fox News from hosting a Democratic primary debate. But many candidates, such as Buttigieg, are breaking from the party line and going on Fox, each in his or her own way.
Wallace's introduction of Buttigieg to Fox viewers Sunday evening in Claremont probably further incensed the commander in chief. "I've got to tell you, and you can feel it, this is a hot ticket," Wallace said. "More people have shown up for this town hall than any of our previous ones."
Just days before, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had very publicly declined Fox News’s invitation to a town hall, calling the network, among other things, a “hate-for-profit racket.” Soon after, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) followed suit in stating that she, too, would not appear at a Fox News town hall. (Warren’s critics were quick to note that she sent out a fundraising email soon after her statement.)
Warren’s campaign said that her message was specifically targeted to Fox News management, not its viewers. She argues that the advertisers that have boycotted specific hosts are hurting Fox News’s bottom line — something that Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch denies — and that the network is vulnerable. “I’m not going to give them a full hour of my time so they can raise money and credibility off it,” she told supporters at an event over the weekend.
David Axelrod, a CNN commentator and senior strategist under President Barack Obama, said of Warren: “You can be both shrewd and principled at the same time, and that may be the case here. I have no doubt Elizabeth has strong feelings about Fox, and she made a colorful argument. But it’s also consistent with her political strategy, which is to galvanize the left.”
“Trump sees Fox News as state TV and objects to Democrats going on Fox. And some Democrats see it as objectionable to be on Fox. Those are the poles of the argument,” Axelrod added. “But one of the things that’s wrong with the country is we live in silos.”
Fox has hosted several town halls with Democratic candidates — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Buttigieg, so far — and there are more to come. Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will get hers on June 2.
“Fox News is by and large — there are exceptions — a mouthpiece for the Trump wing of the Republican Party,” said Jeff Weaver, who has advised Sanders. “I don’t think there are ifs, ands or buts about that. But the other reality is a lot of people watch Fox News.”
Sanders’s position is also calculated. According to a Morning Consult poll, 22 percent of Fox News viewers who identified as potential Democratic primary voters supported Sanders, compared with 13 percent of MSNBC viewers.
Klobuchar, who likened her Fox News town hall to a Minnesota Vikings fan at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, appeared on ABC’s “The View” last week and defended her decision to appear on the network, saying that she, too, was going to meet voters where they were.
Buttigieg also addressed the issue in Claremont.
“You know, a lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this with Fox News,” he told Wallace.
“I’ve heard that,” Wallace quipped.
Buttigieg said he understood where that criticism was coming from. He called out Tucker Carlson for saying immigrants make the country dirty and Laura Ingraham for comparing detention centers for children to summer camps.
“There is a reason why anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem,” he said. But then Buttigieg said that even if those hosts “are not always there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune in to this network who do it in good faith. And there are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame if they are ignoring our message because they will never hear it if we don’t go on and talk about it.”
Monday morning, “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade shot back at Buttigieg. “Don’t hop on our channel and continue to put down the other hosts on the channel, or the channel,” Kilmeade said. “If you feel that negative about it, don’t come.”
But Buttigieg’s strategy is to be everywhere. He has limited name recognition, unlike Joe Biden, who is leading in early polling and has not committed to any town halls yet.
“I think it’s crazy not to do it,” said Lis Smith, his communications adviser.
A Pew poll released in 2017 showed that 10 percent of Fox News's audience identifies as liberal Democrats and that more than half of Fox News's audience isn't made up of conservative Republicans (and conservative independents who lean Republican).
“There is not a primary voter in any state who cares about this. It’s just not how they are going to make their decision,” Democratic political strategist and CNN commentator Stephanie Cutter said in an interview. “But, it’s a good media play for candidates that go on, and some who don’t. Pete Buttigieg will have days of good media as a result of going on Fox and calling them out, all while making a strong appeal to some of those Obama-Trump voters who were watching. Elizabeth Warren made a different judgment by taking a stand against going on Fox. . . . The beauty is that their individual strategies worked perfectly for both of them.”
Fox News’s town halls have mostly outstripped CNN and MSNBC in ratings. Sanders’s Fox event drew 2.6 million viewers; Klobuchar’s 1.6 million; Buttigieg’s 1.1 million. And while CNN’s events have made news and “created moments” for candidates, Fox consistently trumpets that its regular programming beats CNN’s town halls.
Buttigieg has appeared twice on CNN town halls. His first appearance in March was watched by 545,000 viewers. His next reached 1.18 million people, bigger than his audience on Fox News. (Competition from the season finale of “Game of Thrones,” which aired around the same time as the Fox town hall, may have played a role.)
To lay the groundwork for the town halls, Wallace and his boss have made the rounds to many of the Democratic candidates’ campaigns, meeting to discuss the format and make their pitch that Fox News has a large audience and that its anchors are honest brokers.
In an interview earlier this month, Fox News senior vice president of news Bill Sammon said the network looks at polling and fundraising to help make its decision about whom to feature in its town halls.
Julián Castro’s campaign is finalizing a date and location for a town hall, his campaign said. And other Democratic candidates, especially those with little to no national profile, said they would participate in a Fox News town hall if asked.
Michael Hopkins, the national press secretary for John Delaney, said his candidate has appeared on Fox News and would go on again in the future. (He hasn’t been asked to participate in a Fox News town hall.)
In late March, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington and a Democratic candidate who doesn’t rank in the top 10 of the 23 candidates, appeared on “Fox & Friends.” Host Steve Doocy asked how he plans to break through. “You go on ‘Fox & Friends,’ ” Inslee offered energetically. “How about that?”
Paul Farhi contributed to this report.This story has been updated.