Forget Iowa And New Hampshire: Fox News Says Qualifying For Its Debate Is The First Real Contest

Fox Brands Its Debate The “Cleveland Primary”

Fox News personalities believe the August 6 Fox News debate is supplanting Iowa and New Hampshire as the first Republican presidential contest. The debate's 10-candidate limit places Fox News in a gatekeeper role, with candidates jostling for airtime on the network to better their chances of making the debate stage.

Fox News announced in May that its Cleveland debate, the first of the presidential cycle, will only include candidates “in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls.” With the Republican field potentially reaching 16 or more candidates, the rules could mean the exclusion of several candidates. 

The August debate has now become “Fox's Cleveland primary.”

Fox News host Howard Kurtz wrote on May 26 that “Fox News has set a bar that will make it difficult for the also-rans to get political traction.” He wrote that the rules “will help winnow the field” and “well before anyone makes it to Iowa, the Republican candidates will have to clear the bar for Fox's Cleveland primary.” 

Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky said while co-hosting the May 22 edition of The Five that “you now have a primary, essentially, to get -- the debate primary. It's not the Iowa straw poll. It's the primary, the FOX News/Facebook primary.” She said that Republicans will “have to compete earlier, three or four months earlier to try to get into these debates. So they have to spend resources, which are very precious.”

Fox News host Brian Kilmeade asked presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham in a June 4 Fox News radio interview if he would treat the debate “like some treat Iowa ... almost as if August 6th is a date and the cutoff to be tops in those polls.” Graham replied he'll “work hard to meet” the Fox criteria but still campaign in early states.

During his May 31 program, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, who is also a debate co-moderator, suggested candidates may change their campaign strategies because of the debate. He asked candidate Carly Fiorina: “You had been campaigning the traditional way, spending a lot of time in the states that vote early, such as Iowa. Now, given the fact that we're going to base this on national polls, is that going to change your strategy going forward?” Fiorina said she wouldn't and early states are still important.

During a June 7 interview with candidate Rick Santorum, Wallace suggested the debate criteria can shift some power away from Iowa and New Hampshire to the nation as a whole. (Santorum, who is at risk of missing the debate cut, has been critical of the network's rules.) Wallace said: “A lot of people would say around the country, we've given Iowa and New Hampshire enough of a role and maybe the nation should play something of a role.”

The New York Times reported on June 4 that Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire “fear candidates are too focused on getting on television to enhance their poll standing, when they should be out meeting voters in town halls and greasy spoons.” Former Republican Party of Iowa chairman Matt Strawn said that “now we have put network executives, quite frankly, in charge of winnowing the field instead of actual voters.”

Media Matters has documented how Republican candidates are competing in the Fox News Primary by making numerous appearances on the network to increase their standing among primary voters. Wallace said during a June 5 Mike Gallagher Show radio interview that Fox News Sunday is featuring lower-tier candidates like Santorum and Fiorina so “everybody gets a lot of exposure and if they don't make the top 10 ... it wasn't for lack of our making them available to the American voter.”

Then-Fox News contributor Dick Morris argued in November 2010 that the conservative network had diminished the influence of early nominating states: “The quarter finals will not be waged in the cornfields of Iowa or the former mill towns of New Hampshire. They will be held in the living rooms of America among the Fox News audience!”

“The share of the GOP electorate that watches Fox News has become so dominant that the early stages of the Republican nominating process will be held on its air waves. It is there -- not in the early morning handshaking at factory gates in Iowa and New Hampshire -- that we will meet the candidates and come to choose our favorites.”