My general position on Fox News has to be complacent, assuming that it mostly preaches to the converted and wasn’t necessarily creating more conservatives (although it was probably contributing to the rightward shift of the Republican Party, which isn’t trivial.)
A new study in the American Economic Review (the discipline’s flagship journal), with an intriguing and persuasive methodology, finds exactly that. Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimate that watching Fox News directly causes a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ attitudes, which translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.
They estimate that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008.
For context, that would’ve made John Kerry the 2004 popular vote winner, and turned Barack Obama’s 2008 victory into a landslide where he got 60 percent of the two-party vote.
“There is a non-trivial amount of uncertainty” about those estimates, Yurukoglu cautions. “I personally don’t think it’s totally implausible, but it is higher than I would have guessed prior to the research.” And even if the effect were half as large as estimated, that’d still mean that Fox News is having a very real, sizable effect on elections.
The effects of CNN and MSNBC on centrist voters are mostly negligible; MSNBC, in 2000 and 2004, modestly increased odds of voting Republican, before it turned left in time for 2008. But Fox News increases Republican voting odds for centrists, for Democratic viewers, and even, in 2004 and 2008, for Republicans already strongly inclined to vote that way. Watching three minutes more of Fox News per week in 2008 would have made the typical Democratic or centrist voter 1 percentage point likelier to vote Republican that year.
“Fox is substantially better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans,” the authors find. While most Fox viewers are Republican, a sizable minority aren’t, and they’re particularly suggestible to the channel’s influence. In 2000, they estimate that 58 percent of Fox viewers who were initially Democrats changed to supporting the Republican candidate by the end of the election cycle; in 2004, the persuasion rate was 27 percent, and 28 percent in 2008. MSNBC, by contrast, only persuaded 8 percent of initial Republicans to vote Democratic in the 2008 cycle.
It’s also important that Fox News puts ranks the interests of the Republican Party even above its own:
What’s more, they find that Fox isn’t setting its ideology where it ought to to maximize its viewership. It’s much more conservative than is optimal from that perspective. But it’s pretty close to the slant that would maximize its persuasive power: that would result in the largest rightward movement among viewers. CNN, by contrast, matched its political stances pretty closely to the viewer-maximizing point, showing less interest in operating as a political agent.
Roger Ailes is one of the most important figures of 21st century America, and he was critical to putting his soul mate in many respects Donald Trump in the White House.