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Study: Two years of the Fox News 2024 pre-primary

18 would-be presidential candidates made more than 1,200 Fox appearances after Trump’s defeat

  • Former President Donald Trump launched the 2024 Republican presidential primary with his November 15 announcement that he would again seek the office he held for four years and attempted to retain via coup. But a shadow primary has already been underway for the past two years, as ambitious GOP politicians flocked to Fox News to bolster their standing with the network’s viewers and hosts.

    Fox is a powerful propaganda outlet that wields sizable influence over the GOP and its primaries. The network’s stars are party kingmakers whose endorsements sway primary voters – albeit with dubious results. Its audience includes party activists and voters who responded to the right’s decades-long assault on the mainstream press by seeking news from within the movement’s bubble. These factors ensure that Republican politicians appear regularly on the network during campaign season – some even join the network as contributors while they plot their next move. Fox played a central role in the 2012 and 2016 Republican presidential primary elections, with Trump’s dominating control of the network’s airwaves helping him to victory in the latter cycle.

    Trump’s would-be successors flocked to the network that helped make him president after his defeat in 2020. Eighteen potential Republican presidential candidates made at least 1,232 appearances on Fox weekday programs from Election Day 2020 through Election Day 2022, according to a Media Matters review of our internal guest database. 

    We included the following individuals discussed in the media as potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who joined Fox as a contributor in April 2021 while contemplating a run for president), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Trump, and his son, Donald Trump Jr. (Note that the study period overlapped with the 2022 midterm elections, in which Abbott, DeWine, DeSantis, Lee, Noem, Rubio, and Tim Scott were candidates.)

  • Chart of appearances
  • Fox appearances alone cannot compensate for a crushing lack of charisma – Cotton lapped the field over the period of our study with 274 appearances, but has reportedly decided not to seek the nomination after failing to gain traction in public polls, according to a November report from Politico. But the network’s hits provide a ready opportunity for candidates to make their pitch to party voters and activists – and provide some insight into which candidates its powerful hosts prefer.

  • Reading the Fox tea leaves on Trump versus DeSantis

  • Much of the speculation about the 2024 Republican presidential primary has revolved around a looming potential battle between Trump, the former president and the party’s most recent standard-bearer, and DeSantis, a swing-state governor with a national profile and deep-pocketed supporters among the party’s donor class. 

    Fox’s support played a key role in each of their political ascents. Trump won the 2016 presidency with help from Fox, and made its hosts his closest advisers in the White House. DeSantis, meanwhile, won the Florida governorship thanks to the network’s airtime, then became a party hero by channeling the network’s focuses on COVID-19 and the culture war. If a Trump-DeSantis primary materializes, the network will inevitably structure their debate and impact who wins.

    Fox has proven a key asset for DeSantis as he lays the groundwork for a potential presidential run. The Florida governor made 81 appearances during the term of our study, compared to 29 for Trump. And DeSantis is particularly sophisticated in how he uses the network – while Trump typically joins Fox to talk about himself, and other potential candidates to speak on the news of the day, DeSantis lets the network’s hosts and viewers share in his culture war victories by conducting government business on-air.

    DeSantis also has unusual support across Fox’s primetime lineup, making 19 appearances apiece on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle for a total of 57 primetime appearances. Our data generally show the appearances for each potential candidate focused on one or two of those programs, a reflection of how their hosts represent different party factions. For example, Cotton had the most appearances on Ingraham with 51, compared to 12 on Hannity and 5 on Tucker; Cruz, meanwhile, led on Hannity with 55 appearances while making 9 on Ingraham and 1 on Tucker.

    Trump has made 14 appearances on Hannity and four on Ingraham and did not appear on Tucker during the term of the study. That said, Trump and Carlson clearly have an open line of communication: The Fox host reportedly influenced the former president’s endorsement in the Ohio race for U.S. Senate, and the pair appeared together at the Saudi-backed LIV Golf event at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club over the summer.

  • Chart of primetime appearances
  • DeSantis has mustered support across the right-wing media spectrum, and there are reports that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, who control Fox, favor him over the former president. But Trump has done this before – and when he feuded with the network during the 2016 primaries and after the 2020 election, he came away the winner.

  • Hannity is the epicenter of the pre-primary action

  • Republican politicians know that Sean Hannity is a party operative whose questions are pillow-soft. That fact, along with the host’s keen interest in serving as a tool for GOP electoral victories, has made his program ground zero for the nascent presidential party. 

    Hannity hosted 15 of the 18 candidates we reviewed a combined 247 times, by far the most of any weekday program. Some numbers illustrating how Hannity stands above the rest:

    • The second-place program was Fox & Friends, with 175 interviews – and that show is three hours long. Ingraham had the third-most candidate appearances, with 160.
    • Hannity’s most frequent potential candidate guest, Cruz, made 55 appearances on his show. By contrast, Tucker hosted all potential candidates a combined 63 times.
    • Fox’s weekday “news side” slate, which amounts to nine hours of daily programming, totaled 454 potential candidate appearances – not even twice what Hannity did with its single hour.

    It will be worth keeping an eye on what Hannity does during the primary – particularly if DeSantis enters the race. The Fox host was an early Trump supporter and an obsequiously loyal one throughout his presidency, but also endorsed DeSantis’ first gubernatorial run during the primary and told him during an interview last year, “I'm an idiot. I should be in Florida. You should be my governor.”

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched our internal database of all original, weekday programming on Fox News Channel (shows airing from 6 a.m. through midnight) for segments airing from November 3, 2020, through November 8, 2022, that analysts determined to include guest appearances of the following 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.