The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Warren’s war on Fox News puts her party in a tough spot

Warren has awoken a sleeping giant of an issue within her party.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addresses the crowd on election night 2018. (Sarah Rice/For The Washington Post)
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For the better part of the past few months, HBO host Bill Maher has been pleading with Democrats to go on Fox News. It’s not that he agrees with Fox’s programming or journalism; he just thinks Democrats need it to win. Even if there aren’t many gettable votes, he says, “You got to get in the bubble.”

Elizabeth Warren is going in an entirely different direction, though. And the pressure is on her opponents and party to decide what to do about it.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate declared this week that she would not follow some of her primary opponents and do a town hall on Fox. But she didn’t stop there. She called it a “hate-for-profit racket” that trades on racism, bigotry, conspiracy theories and lies. She said she didn’t want to do anything to legitimize it or boost its ratings.

It was a firm stand that served notice she reserves the right to make this a campaign issue — especially if her opponents decide to keep playing ball with the network. According to her logic, they would be supporting racism and hate. There’s no way around that.

That Warren would take this stand isn’t all that surprising. However many Fox News viewers might be open to voting for Democrats in 2020, very few are open to voting for Warren. According to Suffolk University polling, 32 percent of viewers who most trust Fox News said in March that they were excited for Joe Biden to run for president, and 22 percent were excited for Bernie Sanders. But for Warren, just 16 percent were excited. The 61 percent who said they would prefer she “drop out” was the most of any candidate. (And those numbers were actually better for Warren than they were in December, when only 8 percent said they were excited for her to run vs. 17 percent for Sanders and 38 percent for Biden.)

To be sure, Fox News devotees are largely off-limits for Democrats. The March Suffolk poll showed they prefer President Trump to a generic Democratic candidate 85 percent to 3 percent. Just 5 percent had a favorable impression of the Democratic Party.

These numbers, of course, don’t account for your more casual Fox viewers who perhaps don’t regard it as their most trusted source. But it gives you a sense of what the devoted Fox audience is like. And there isn’t a huge amount of upside.

So just from a purely strategic standpoint for Warren, this makes sense. She may lose a handful of potential voters, and she may pay a price on Fox’s airwaves for her holy war against the network, but she’s also got the least to lose.

The question from there is how much benefit is there. We’re in largely uncharted territory, with a high-profile Democrat spurning Fox News and publicly lashing out against it. Even Barack Obama was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly and Chris Wallace. And even after the Democratic National Committee decided not to award Fox a 2020 debate, other 2020 hopefuls have continued to appear. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a town hall Sunday, joining Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in that distinction.

How Warren wins is if she can make liberal voters and donors appreciate what she’s doing vis-a-vis Fox. A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll showed only 11 percent of Democrats trusted Fox News’s journalism a “great deal.” Another 60 percent trusted it “not at all” (44 percent) or “not so much” (16 percent). That distrust was higher than for any party for any single outlet, including ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC or CNN. A 2014 Pew survey, meanwhile, showed voters who called themselves “consistently liberal” viewed Fox unfavorably by a 73-8 margin.

Warren has got this market cornered. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) declined Fox’s invitation for her own town hall, but she hasn’t spoken out as has Warren. Biden is mum. Other Democratic hopefuls have defended their Fox appearances or their decisions to keep appearing. Given the crowded field, many of the lesser-known candidates can ill afford to pass on the chance to speak directly to voters on national cable TV.

But don’t be surprised if, as with other issues in this primary, some of the top candidates decide they don’t want to leave this newly tilled liberal soil completely to Warren. She’s made a statement here, and her party needs to decide how to wrestle with this sleeping giant of an issue.