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How the rise of Fox News helped Republican candidates

A study showed that cities where Fox News had been introduced saw more Republican votes than politically similar towns where the network was slower to arrive. (John Amis / AP)
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Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University’s Dan Hopkins and George Washington University’s Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hopkins looks at how the emergence of Fox News may have helped Republicans in the 2000 election. For past posts in the series, head here.

In the wake of a presidential election, there is an understandable focus on what is holding back the losing party. But we shouldn’t ignore the factors that have advantaged the GOP in recent elections. And as a pair of recent studies show, the Fox News cable channel is one such advantage.

For researchers, isolating the political effects of media outlets is a tricky business. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that some 40 percent of Republicans reported watching Fox News, as opposed to just 20 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats. The chief explanation for those audience demographics has to be that Republicans tend to prefer the coverage that Fox provides. But how might we separate out the influence of Fox News on the Americans who watch it from the factors that make some Americans more likely to watch it in the first place?

In a 2007 article, economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan provided one creative answer. Fox News didn’t become available overnight in towns nationwide. Instead, it was gradually introduced beginning in 1996—and as late as 2000, it was available in only about 20 percent of U.S. cities. What’s more, the main reason that Fox was available in some places but not others had to do with patterns of cable ownership. Fox News deliberately targeted larger cable providers as part of its strategy to expand its audience and to rival CNN in market share. So while some towns had Fox News access, other towns—towns with similar political leanings but different cable providers—did not.

That gradual introduction allowed DellaVigna and Kaplan to compare 2000 presidential voting in towns with and without access to the Fox News cable channel across 28 states. Doing so, they concluded that Fox News access provided a demonstrable boost to George W. Bush’s vote totals. Between 1996 and 2000, a town with Fox News saw an increase in its GOP vote share of between 0.4 and 0.7 percentage points relative to demographically similar towns without Fox News. Effects of that size are politically influential, and larger than the effect of airing 1,000 TV advertisements. In short, they matter politically, even in elections that are not as razor-tight as 2000.

To be sure, the market for television news has changed dramatically since 2000, and Fox News’ audience and coverage have changed as well. But even a decade ago, the Fox News cable channel provided a take on the news that was right-leaning relative to other major media outlets, as scholars including Tim Groseclose, Jeffrey Milyo and John Gasper have demonstrated. From its inception, Fox News provided prime-time slots to commentators including Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. And the evidence marshaled by DellaVigna and Kaplan suggests that its coverage was politically influential even as early as 2000.

Still, the political implications of the Fox News effect depend on whether it is principally Democrats, independents, or Republicans who are influenced. Is Fox News primarily reinforcing Republicans or persuading Democrats? In recent research, Jonathan M. Ladd and I take up that issue by matching town-level data on Fox News availability with respondents to the 2000 National Annenberg Election Survey. That telephone survey interviewed almost 58,000 Americans during and after that year’s presidential campaign, allowing us to break out the effects of access to Fox News for various groups of Americans.

Our analyses find that the effect of Fox News is concentrated among Republican identifiers and pure independents, with Democrats and independents who lean Democratic voicing the same (low) level of support for George W. Bush irrespective of their access to Fox News. Considered jointly, Republican identifiers, Republican leaners, and pure independents were approximately 2.6 percentage points more likely to support then-Gov. Bush when living in towns with Fox News. Such effects appear stronger among respondents who were not registered to vote, suggesting that Fox News access was especially influential among less politically engaged Republicans.

Fears about media influence on public opinion have reappeared throughout American history, from the Gilded Age to the period just after World War Two. One such fear holds that the mass media have broad persuasive powers. Certainly, that concern has been levied at Fox News. In the words of one independent producer, “[w]hen you let a small number of companies have this much concentrated power, they will always abuse it... And if you don’t change the system we can be having this conversation for the next 50 years and be talking about Rupert Murdoch the third.”

Yet as our results make clear, the influence of Fox News is not uniform.  How Americans reacted to Fox News in 2000 depended on their prior political leanings, a fact which puts an important break on claims about unchecked media influence. Democrats who had Fox News access were unaffected by the channel, either because they were not tuned in or else because they found its coverage unpersuasive.

Still, our results do validate another, more contemporary concern about media influence: that it fosters political polarization. For Republicans and pure independents, Fox News access in 2000 reinforced GOP loyalties. Since 2000, the opportunity to get news from ideologically friendly sources has grown markedly, whether on television or online, whether for the right or the left. So as we hear about contemporary polarization while watching the news, we would do well to consider how our choice of channels is itself part of the story.