The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the conservative media is taking over the Republican Party

Megyn Kelly (right) interviews Donald Trump during the Fox News special “Megyn Kelly Presents” on May 17, 2016. (Eric Liebowitz/FOX)
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When Donald Trump hired Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News as his new campaign chief, it was a sharp departure from the usual approach to staffing a presidential campaign.

That’s because Bannon, instead of bringing traditional experience as a professional election strategist, had been serving as the executive chairman of a site famous for conservative attack commentary and undercover scandal-stoking videos. Former Fox News Channel head Roger Ailes is also reportedly assisting Trump as he prepares for his upcoming debates with Hillary Clinton. Fox News host Sean Hannity acknowledges that he’s actively advising Trump and using his airtime to advance Trump’s candidacy.

Such blurring of the boundaries between a political campaign and the news outlets that cover it may be unusual – but it’s no departure from Trump’s long record of forging strong connections with conservative information sources.

Trump had a regular Fox & Friends segment called “Monday Mornings with Trump,” which appeared almost weekly from 2011 until he launched his presidential candidacy. He gained popularity among conservatives as the most prominent “birther,” repeatedly and publicly questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, in defiance of the factual record. During the 2016 nomination race, Trump relied on national talk radio hosts to beat back criticism from rival candidates about his deviations from conservative orthodoxy. In fact, Trump’s most significant primary and caucus defeats were in Iowa and Wisconsin, where local conservative radio personalities bucked this trend by actively opposing his candidacy.

This kind of thing does not happen in the Democratic Party.

In our new book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, we show that the two parties have very different relationships with the news media.

The Republican Party is the political vehicle of an ideological movement that has spent decades building a conservative media infrastructure. This alternative information ecosystem has undermined supporters’ trust in mainstream news sources.

By contrast, the Democratic Party relies on a variety of more specialized outlets that match their supporters’ diversity. Much more than Republicans, Democrats treat mainstream journalists as legitimate arbiters of disputes over political facts — such as a candidate’s place of birth.

Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree about how they disagree

How different are the Democratic and Republican parties? Too different to compare.

Today, Republican voters report that they trust only Fox News and other explicitly conservative news outlets. Democratic voters, in contrast, say they trust and consume a wide variety of mainstream news outlets. The figure below shows each group’s net trust (percent trusting minus percent distrusting) of these networks and their mainstream alternatives.

Similarly, Republicans don’t trust scientists and other academics to be politically neutral. Because Republicans view both the mainstream media and academia as disproportionately populated by liberals — an accurate perception, to be sure, as the evidence in our book indicates — they conclude that these institutions cannot be respected as objective authorities. Instead, Republicans rely on research supplied by ideologically aligned sources such as conservative think tanks. As a result, Republican voters, activists, and politicians are more likely to live in an information cocoon, walled off from ideologically inconvenient evidence.

The conservative news media are a parallel power structure, rivaling Republican Party leaders

Over the last several decades, the conservative media universe has become a powerful, though unruly, faction of the GOP itself. Political figures often move back and forth between elective politics and positions on television or radio. Seven Republicans were talk radio hosts before entering Congress (including current vice presidential nominee Mike Pence). Ten became radio hosts after leaving the legislative branch.

Conservative media exerts enough political power among the Republican electorate that some critics, even within the party, fear that its leaders have more influence than traditional Republican leaders and organizations, and stir up dissension and rebellion among the party faithful.

Both conservative media influence and elite fear of this influence have a long history, which our book recounts in detail. As we show, conservatives have dominated talk radio since the 1950s.

Media figures have regularly become movement operatives who both foment popular rebellion and maintain political connections. Clarence Manion, who served on the board of both National Review and the John Birch Society, helped instigate Barry Goldwater’s grass-roots campaign for the presidency. Popular conservative media figures advanced anti-communist crusades in the 1950s and the Christian Right in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan retreated to radio to build his base between his unsuccessful presidential run in 1976 and his successful campaign four years later. Rush Limbaugh helped bring Republicans back to power in Congress in 1994. Fox News stewarded the tea party to prominence in 2009.

Political science has been slow to recognize the political parties’ very different relationships to the news media

With notable exceptions, little political research has recognized the asymmetric relationships between the media and each political party. Most contemporary studies of cable news, for example, test their effects by exposing individuals to Fox News Channel or MSNBC and look for similar effects on their subjects’ political views. But in the real world, these sources have audiences of much different-sizes and play very dissimilar roles within each party.

The chart below illustrates the relative primetime viewership of Fox News and MSNBC. The Fox audience has been three or four times as large as that of MSNBC since 2002; it now serves as a major news source for the Republican base.

Scholars have had great success analyzing the natural experiment of the gradual geographic spread of access to Fox across the country from 1996 to 2000. These studies show that as Fox was introduced to cable systems, it increased Republican voting, especially in conservative but Democratic-held districts; reduced legislator support for President Clinton’s positions; and made legislators more likely to support the Republican position on divided congressional votes. The effects were strongest in areas with more Republicans and closer to Election Day, suggesting that Fox helps mobilize the Republican base.

Unfortunately, these studies were done when Fox’s ratings were only one-fifth their current level — roughly equivalent to those of MSNBC at the time. The studies also came before the channel became uniformly conservative across its prime-time lineup. In other words, political science research probably understates conservative media’s influence – and significantly so. Even so, comparative studies of the two channels show that MSNBC and its kin do not have a parallel impact on Democratic voters or politicians. Right-wing news stands alone.

Democratic candidates don’t turn to liberal media figures in the same way. In fact, there is no left-of-center equivalent of Fox News. 

It would be difficult to imagine Hillary Clinton hiring the editor of Salon or Daily Kos to oversee her campaign or relying on Rachel Maddow as a major adviser. While the ideological nature of the GOP is reinforced by Republican voters’ reliance on intellectual and media authorities that explicitly claim a commitment to a conservative worldview, Democratic voters don’t depend on openly liberal media for their political information.

And although many have tried to build a left-wing version of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, from the Air America radio network to Al Gore’s Current TV, they regularly fail – suggesting that a liberal counterpart to the conservative media universe will never exist. This long-standing partisan asymmetry is likely to remain the same in the future — especially if 2017 brings the advent of Trump TV.

Matt Grossmann is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. Find him on Twitter @mattgrossmann.

David A. Hopkins is assistant professor of political science at Boston College and blogs about U.S. politics at Honest Graft.

Together they are the authors of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, published this week by Oxford University Press.