He has ties to a white supremacist organization, a history of anti-gay extremism, and zero credibility as a political commentator, but Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins managed to use the GOP presidential primary to become a star on cable news networks.
Perkins is no stranger to the mainstream media. Though his organization was labeled an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 2010, he's made frequent appearances on cable news networks, commenting on issues ranging from same-sex adoption to Donald Trump.
According to an Equality Matters analysis, however, Perkins' cable news appearances skyrocketed during the 2012 GOP primary, allowing the hate group leader to become a near-constant source of right-wing campaign commentary. Perkins made a total of 56 appearances on cable news over the course of the primary, the plurality of which occurred on MSNBC:
These numbers don't include appearances that weren't related to the presidential election, like a CNN segment discussing what Jesus Christ would have thought about Occupy Wall Street.
The results also don't include the number of times the networks referenced or discussed Perkins' election commentary without actually hosting him on air. CNN alone did this 31 times during the primary.
The overwhelming majority of Perkins' appearances positioned him as a spokesperson for two groups of voters: social conservatives and evangelicals:
In segment after segment, Perkins warned Republican candidates that their electoral prospects would be in jeopardy if they didn't pander to extreme social conservatives. When then-Republican candidate Mitt Romney failed to appear at an event hosted by Iowa's anti-gay Family Leader, for example, Perkins went on Fox to chastise the candidate for taking the "McCain path to the nomination." In fact, when Perkins wasn't shamelessly shilling for Rick Santorum, the hate group leader spent much of his time encouraging Romney to "do more" to appeal to evangelicals (read: be more openly anti-gay).
Unsurprisingly, the electoral predictions that Perkins had spent all cycle touting on cable news turned out to be wishful thinking; Obama didn't lose the election because of his support for same-sex marriage, black voters didn't revolt over social issues, and Romney retained support among white Republican evangelical voters despite being relatively light on anti-LGBT rhetoric during the primary and general election.
Perkins proved to be as bad at predicting electoral outcomes as he is at producing serious policy analysis. It turns out hate group leaders aren't the most reliable people when it comes to accurately describing reality.
Still, plenty of media pundits have made wrong, misguided, and downright dishonest predictions on the campaign trail before.
What makes Perkins's case exceptional is the amount of credibility that he and his hate group received have a result of his frequent appearances on cable news. Not a single cable network bothered to identify Perkins as the president of an anti-gay hate group during any of his 56 appearances:
Instead, cable news hosts certified Perkins as a credible and authoritative spokesman for Christian, so-called values voters. After the Iowa caucus, Fox's Mike Huckabee called FRC “one of the most respected family organizations in America" and lauded Perkins for his “clear understanding, not only of Iowa, but of the process nationally.” Fox host Megyn Kelly called him one of the country's "top family values conservatives."
As the networks continue to cover the FRC's annual Values Voter Summit without noting its association with extreme anti-gay hate groups, it is clear that Perkins has become a major player within the GOP. And, at least on cable news, he wields tremendous power as a newsmaker.
When Perkins asked Gingrich to step down from the race in March to make way for a Santorum nomination, for example, CNN ran multiple segments breathlessly reporting on his request, sparking an uncomfortable national conversation for the Gingrich campaign.
Simply put, the leader of a vicious hate group - whose political history includes ties to white supremacist groups including the Ku Klux Klan - should not have that kind of power when it comes to influencing cable news cycles.
Nor should he be treated as a spokesperson for American evangelicals. Though Romney retained high support among conservative white evangelicals, Obama actually outperformed Romney when it came to Hispanic and African American evangelicals. As Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis wrote days after the election, “Nov. 6 was an even deeper disaster for the religious right's leaders, because they will no longer be able to control or easily co-opt the meaning of the term 'evangelical.'"
Considering his well-documented history of anti-gay extremism and right wing dishonesty, Perkins should have an incredibly difficult time being taken seriously on national television.
But CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all welcomed the hate group leader during the GOP primary, providing him with a platform to root for the most anti-gay candidates possible while depicting him as a respectable and credible representative of religious voters.
Perkins represents a fringe and increasingly powerless faction of religious conservatives in the GOP. Instead of allowing him to slip into political obscurity, cable news networks ensured that the hate group leader will continue to have influence in Republican politics for election cycles to come.
To see the full Equality Matters report, click here.