How Super PACs Are Trying To Buy Their Candidates Into The Fox Primary Debate

Groups Backing Rubio And Perry Are Spending Millions On Fox Airtime

Marco Rubio

Super PACs supporting Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Marco Rubio have purchased millions of dollars of ad time on Fox News, according to data obtained by Media Matters from a media buying source. An adviser to super PACs backing Perry reportedly admitted the spending is intended to raise his profile to help him qualify for the upcoming Fox News primary debate.

Ever since Fox declared that its August 6 debate would only include candidates  “in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls,” the 15 Republicans currently running (with more potentially entering the race soon) have scrambled to gain the exposure necessary to make the cut, with some super PACs reportedly changing their entire campaign strategies.

In response to the debate rules announcement, Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus argued that Roger Ailes “will decide which candidates can compete in Republican presidential primaries next year.” The debate rules are already having a tangible impact on the campaign. 

New York Times' Nick Confessore reported July 15 that a group of super PACs supporting Rick Perry “are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising on the Fox News Channel and other cable channels to raise Mr. Perry's profile,” in order to “see him on that debate stage,” according to an adviser to the groups.

Data obtained by Media Matters from a media buying source shows that a super PAC supporting Marco Rubio has also been investing in Fox News airtime.

For ads running over the next 12 days, Opportunity and Freedom, a super PAC supporting Perry, is spending $450,000 on Fox News Channel, and an additional $50,000 on sister channel Fox Business.

While Conservative Solutions, a group backing Rubio, will spend more than $3 million on Fox News, and $28,000 on Fox Business, for ads running between June 23 and July 27.

“Because of the way the Fox News Channel has taken over the Republican presidential process this year,” MSNBC's Rachel Maddow reported last night, the groups backing Perry “are completely changing the way they are trying to campaign.”

Maddow explained that Fox News now gets to “cash in” on its own rule, adding, “It's a nice racket” :

MADDOW: If Rick Perry is excluded from the Republican presidential debates, effectively he's not even running for president any more, right? If he's not in the debates, nobody is considering his nomination ... So, the Rick Perry super PAC today decided first things first -- instead of focusing on the early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina like candidates always have in the past, today, they announced that they would stop those efforts. They would start ignoring the early states and instead they're going to put all of their resources, all their money, ahundred of thousands of dollars, as fast as they can into ads for Rick Perry to run on the FOX News channel, and on other national cable networks. ... the Rick Perry super PACs are being rational. They're putting all of their eggs into that basket.

[...]

So, FOX News set that rule for the Republican Party, and now, FOX News gets to cash in on that role, by getting all of the Rick Perry super PAC money in the form of his national ads. It's a nice racket, right? [transcript via Nexis]

Media Matters has previously reported on Fox News' unprecedented involvement with the Republican primary. Candidates flock to the network to boost their profiles among the network's audience while also trying to win favor from its influential hosts.

Fox host Sean Hannity has sought to become a “conservative kingmaker,” with his show devoting significantly more air-time to lengthy interviews with candidates than any other program on the network.

Our most recent data showed former reality TV host Donald Trump taking the lead in the “Fox Primary” with more on-air appearances in June than any other GOP contender. Rick Perry came in second with seven appearances; Marco Rubio only made one appearance that month.

Several of the GOP candidates whose current polling numbers appear to leave them below Fox's threshold for participation have criticized the debate rules and the power it gives Fox, though others are using it to fundraise. Carly Fiorina wrote to supporters in May: “I need your help to get on that debate stage ... Will you donate $13 today?” In June, Lindsey Graham also asked Fox News Radio listeners to “help me” get into the debate.