Fox News hosts have spent 2021 undermining the campaign to vaccinate Americans against the deadly coronavirus pandemic; drifting toward a paranoid, fascistic, apocalyptic politics; and institutionalizing former President Donald Trump’s lie that the election was stolen and laying the groundwork to rig the next presidential election in favor of the GOP.
None of this has impeded the central role Fox plays in Republican politics. The network remains the most powerful force on the right, with the possible exception of Trump. GOP politicians who see themselves as future presidents are flocking to its airwaves, hoping that regular Fox appearances will win over its politically potent hosts and sizable audience. Media Matters is tracking those interviews, which we call the Fox primary, as we did in 2012 and 2016.
Early polls suggest that their efforts have had mixed results. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear to be discovering that no amount of Fox promotion can compensate for a critical lack of charisma. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who owes his current position to a Fox-focused 2018 campaign, has emerged as a network hero, a compromise candidate among its prime-time hosts -- and the shadow primary’s poll leader.
Missing the top-10 cut is Trump himself, who made 13 Fox weekday appearances and is reportedly considering a rerun.
Over the first eight months of 2021, Media Matters identified 498 Fox weekday appearances by 18 potential GOP presidential candidates -- nearly three interviews each day. By contrast, that group combined for a total of 12 appearances on weekday CNN and MSNBC, almost all of which were made less serious contenders.
Tom Cotton is winning the Fox primary, but ...
Cotton seems to think that the best way he can win over a national audience is by remaining a constant presence on Fox. The Arkansas senator’s 113 appearances have lapped the field -- Pompeo has the second most, with 55, and he’s actually been on the network’s payroll since April, when he joined as a contributor.
Over the first eight months of 2021, Cotton:
- Averaged more than three Fox hits a week.
- Had the most appearances among contenders on 10 of the 14 Fox shows we reviewed, including both “opinion”-side shows like Fox & Friends and “news” broadcasts like America’s Newsroom.
- Appeared more frequently than any contender in seven of the eight months, with a high of 17 interviews in June.
- Had a monthly low of eight appearances, with his second-lowest monthly total of 12. No other would-be candidate had more than 11 in any single month.
Cotton appears to be trying to follow Trump’s 2016 path, building up a rapport with Fox’s audience by becoming a near-constant presence on the network. But so far, familiarity is not breeding support, with polls showing him garnering between 0% and 1%. It’s possible that no amount of exposure can overcome Cotton’s much-discussed anti-charisma.
Ron DeSantis is the Fox prime-time compromise candidate
DeSantis seems to be bridging the gap between the Fox hosts who prioritize ethnonationalist ideology and those who are more traditional propagandists for the Republican Party.
No two prime-time hosts gave the same contender the most interviews: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) appeared most frequently on Tucker Carlson Tonight (10 interviews), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Hannity (19), and Cotton on The Ingraham Angle (16).
But while DeSantis was not the top contender on any of those shows, his 27 combined appearances on them were the most of any of the would-be candidates, and he was the only one to rank in the top three on all three programs.
Over the first eight months of the year, he appeared seven times on Tucker Carlson’s show (good for second most among the contenders), 10 times on Sean Hannity’s program (third), and 10 times on Laura Ingraham’s broadcast (second). DeSantis’ nine appearances on Fox’s popular morning talk show, Fox & Friends, also place him in third place for that program.
DeSantis owes his current status to Fox. As a backbench House member, he used more than 100 Fox appearances to build a statewide brand as the most pro-Trump candidate in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. Fox’s platform allowed him to catch Trump’s eye, leading to a crucial endorsement from the then-president. And he won the support of Fox hosts like Hannity, who campaigned for him. With Fox’s backing, DeSantis won the primary and then a narrow general election victory.
As DeSantis plots a presidential run, his Fox strategy has become more sophisticated. Would-be candidates like Cotton often use their appearances in a traditional manner, presenting their opinion on the news of the day. But DeSantis uses his interviews to allow Fox’s hosts -- and its audience -- to share in his political wins. The Florida governor has conducted official state business on air, signing a voter suppression bill during one live interview and offering a reprieve to a Florida couple arrested for violating local mask ordinances during another. He basks in praise from the network’s hosts over his lax handling of the pandemic and enlists them in his fights against journalists.
Fox fueled DeSantis’ rise -- and he’s hoping it can take him all the way to the presidency.
Hannity is ground zero for the GOP primary
No Fox host conducts as many interviews of would-be GOP presidential candidates as the party propagandist Sean Hannity -- and it isn’t particularly close. Thirteen potential candidates totaled 90 Hannity appearances over the first eight months of the year. Fox & Friends was a distant second, with 76 appearances on a program that is three times as long.
Cruz made the most visits to Hannity’s ongoing candidate cattle call, with 19 interviews. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was second with 13, DeSantis was third with 10, and Pompeo and Donald Trump Jr. tied for fourth with nine. Hannity also hosted seven of former President Trump’s 13 total Fox weekday interviews (no other weekday host has interviewed him more than once).
Hannity played a similar role during the 2016 Republican primary. He spent nearly 50 hours of airtime interviewing GOP presidential candidates between May 1, 2015, and May 3, 2016, more than double any other show. A staggering 17 hours of that airtime went to Trump.
These interviews provide an ideal scenario for Republican candidates. Hannity has a large audience of fervent GOP primary voters. And he’s a GOP operative who wouldn’t dream of asking a Republican politician anything that remotely resembles a difficult question and is notorious for helping them out of difficult situations.
Rounding out the five shows that hosted the most potential presidential candidates are Fox News Primetime (66 interviews), The Ingraham Angle (55), and America’s Newsroom (54). Notably, Carlson rarely hosts them, doing only 23 such interviews so far this year.
Media Matters searched our internal database of all original, weekday programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC (shows airing from 6 a.m. through midnight) for segments airing from January 1 through August 31, 2021, that analysts determined to include guest appearances of various Republicans whom media have discussed as potential 2024 presidential candidates: Greg Abbott, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Mike DeWine, Nikki Haley, Josh Hawley, Larry Hogan, Mike Lee, Kristi Noem, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, Rick Scott, Tim Scott, Donald Trump, and Donald Trump Jr.
As of this writing, our internal database is missing data for January 1 and July 2 on CNN and January 1, July 2, and July 5 on MSNBC.