But this time, Bolling had math on his side. So on Fox News's “The Five” on Monday, he got a little whiteboard and sketched out his point. Actually, he argued, it was good to lose the first debate, because the winner of the first debate often goes on to lose the election.
It's not that Bolling is wrong, as such. Gallup's numbers do show that the winners of the first debates often go on to lose. Three-quarters of the time since 1984! Seventy-five percent!
It's just that 75 percent of eight total debates isn't the sort of robust data set that we might think tells us very much. One more debate won by an eventual winner, and Bolling's big number drops under two-thirds.
It's also worth remembering that “winning a debate" is not like “winning an election." It's subjective, meaning that it's dependent on expectations. And you know who usually has lower expectations coming into a debate? The person who is already losing. The way Mitt Romney was losing in 2012, John F. Kerry was losing in 2004, Ross Perot was losing in 1996, Mike Dukakis was losing in 1988 and Walter Mondale was losing in 1984.
When Bolling was making his argument about how crowd size was very important, his colleague Dana Perino stepped in with a helpful corrective. “It's a real disservice to his supporters, to lie to them that those polls don't matter," she told Bolling, which was true. It is similarly a disservice to argue that it is actually a bad thing to win a debate by the third-largest margin in the history of Gallup polling. Did winning the first debate propel Romney to the White House? No, but it pulled him back into contention.
But that's not the important point here. The important point is why Bolling might want to offer this clumsy defense.
One of the trends that has emerged in the wake of the fracturing of the media landscape is that there are plenty of media outlets that will tell you what you want to hear. It didn't take long before people figured out that this was a decent business model: Frame news stories within a particular context and run ads against them to make a little money. This was the Upworthy model a few years back, offering progressive-friendly news items paired with an explicitly emotional headline. (It worked well, until Facebook changed its algorithm.) The proliferation of this style of media coverage often also means that reporting from other sites is viewed as necessarily working in a similar way (he said defensively).
Over the course of this election cycle, we've seen a further evolution of that idea: Sites that simply make things up and sell ads against that. In April, I looked at Prntly, a site that makes up news about Trump and has seen viral success result (including a tweet of one of its stories by Trump himself). It used to be that these sites would pretend that they were “satire," making up outrageous-seeming news stories about weird crimes in Florida and so on just to lure in suspects. With the emergence of the 2016 campaign — and a candidate willing to bless conspiracy theories — the pretext of the stories being satirical has fallen away. Consider that Trump sat down for an interview with InfoWars, the granddaddy of conspiracy theory sites. If you have a presidential nominee blessing InfoWars, why are you going to worry about ensuring that the poll numbers you're tweeting are from a valid pollster?
The person who has fully embraced this idea at Fox News isn't Bolling, though. It's Sean Hannity. Hannity spent weeks exploring ridiculous theories about Hillary Clinton's health and has otherwise embraced all sorts of theories about Trump's inevitable success and Clinton's inevitable failure. He embraces the idea that his program is not a news show but an opinion show, then leverages the tools of journalism (interviews, polls, etc.) in service of those opinions on the Fox News channel. The line blurs, and Hannity's ratings have been strong.
That's a few steps down the path from where Bolling was on Monday, but it's all of a piece. I don't doubt that Bolling is being sincere, but there's clearly a benefit in cobbling together an argument on behalf of the virulently popular Republican nominee. He's a media empire, too, and his blessing offers rewards.