Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has ruled out a primary debate hosted by Fox News. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

There is no question that the top priority of Democrats in 2020 is to defeat President Trump on Election Day. It’s not like they’ve been shy about their desire. In fact, according to a recent Monmouth University poll, 56 percent of Democrats believe that the most important quality in a presidential nominee is not a stance on any particular issue but whether he or she can beat win.

So it is perplexing that the Democratic National Committee has not adopted this attitude as it plans the presidential primary debates. On Wednesday, the DNC announced that it would not permit Fox News to host any of the debates. Chairman Tom Perez cited Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker article about Fox News and its “propagandistic” relationship with the Trump White House, holding it up as proof that Fox would treat Democrats unfairly. Rank-and-file party members across social media cheered the decision.

Their schadenfreude may be self-defeating. Fox News isn’t just capable of hosting a fair and informative debate. It’s also a crucial outlet for reaching an audience that contains some potential voters Democrats will need if they want to end Trump’s presidency.

One common misconception about Fox News is that it’s filled with wall-to-wall programming and personalities boosting Trump and his every utterance — a frequent charge of the network’s critics. True, some hosts, such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, support the president and do not hide it. But these are the proprietors of opinion programs, and they are no different from opinion columnists such as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman and the New York Times’ Charles Blow, or MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow. On the news side at Fox, several anchors refuse to toe the Trump line and remain devoted to solid reporting of stories and discussion of issues. (Full disclosure: I am an occasional guest on news and opinion shows on Fox News and Fox Business. I am not compensated for these appearances.)

There is an immediate, highly relevant historical example here: the third and final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in October 2016. Fox News’s Chris Wallace hosted it, and figures from the left and the right cheered his work. The New Yorker’s television critic, Emily Nussbaum, tweeted: “Gotta say, Chris Wallace is a pro. Cool demeanor, asking clear follow-ups,” while the Times wrote that Wallace “mixed humor with scolding and persistence with patience to guide his charges toward the most substantive encounter of an unusually vicious election.”

Lower-profile and lower-stakes coverage follows basic journalistic principles, too. Harris Faulkner earned praise from Slate, a frequent Fox News antagonist, for a segment discussing gun policy that she moderated in 2017 (note: I was one of the participants). Anchors Shepard Smith, Neil Cavuto, Dana Perino, Martha MacCallum, Bret Baier and others have also repeatedly received plaudits for their devotion to presenting the truth. Does the DNC think they have suddenly abandoned those values? (Mayer’s piece alleged that a Fox News reporter was told to kill a story about Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels. Even if true, the executives who made the decision are no longer with Fox News.)

Further, since the 2016 election, Democrats have openly discussed their desire to win over Trump voters -- many of whom are Fox News viewers. According to Nielsen, the network’s viewers are 94 percent white and have a median age of 65: exactly the demographic in which Democrats will need to make headway in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.

These voters aren’t a transparently lost cause. Just over four months ago, there was a noticeable change in how white Americans voted. White voters backed Trump by a margin of 21 points in 2016 but but preferred Republicans by just 10 points in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. At the same time, voters 65 and older also saw a seismic shift that benefited Democrats, as these voters went from favoring Republicans by 16 percentage points in 2014 to preferring them by just two points in 2018. These Americans are clearly persuadable if they hear the right message. They may not leap onto Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bandwagon, but the populism of Elizabeth Warren or the pragmatism of John Hickenlooper might appeal to some of them — maybe just enough of them.

Perez and the DNC have shut the door on a golden opportunity to talk directly to an audience of potential voters whom they have said they want to win over — voters who already trust the likely debate moderators from Fox News’s stable of qualified anchors. The decision may elicit a smile from Democrats now, but it might not on the morning of Nov. 4, 2020, if they’re asking themselves, as they did last time, whether they could have done more.