Disclaimer: CounterPunch is not endorsing or supporting Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or any candidate. This is purely analysis.
Elizabeth Warren’s decision to turn down an invitation from FOX News to appear on a town hall event has become something of a controversy on the left. It seems odd but there seem to be a not insignificant number of people who believe that Warren, and anyone really, should simply jump at the opportunity to go on FOX and, I don’t know, convert the right wing audience to a more humane politics? Perhaps it’s to establish some baseline of sanity within the discourse on the right? Simple strategy to challenge right-wing talking points on every platform possible?
While it’s probably all of the above and then some, there is something rather revealing in these reactions, something that often goes unacknowledged in the incestuous and insular world of online punditry on the left: That many of these people literally do not understand the basic facts of the situation that inform Warren’s decision, and instead simply denounce it based on mostly nothing.
But let me explain further…
The argument goes something like:
“Warren is making Hillary’s Deplorables mistake all over again.”
“Warren is not serious as a candidate because she turned down this offer from FOX”
“Warren is acting as if MSNBC and CNN are somehow better than FOX when they’re not.”
These claims are nonsense. I’m going to explain some of the reasons why Warren’s decision makes a lot of sense strategically.
Look at the Numbers
It’s easy to argue that appearing on FOX is critical when you consider the fact that FOX remains the highest-rated of the cable news channels, averaging 1.3 million viewers. But let’s dig a little deeper to explore whether this simple assumption that FOX appearances are critical for a Democrat is actually true.
While it is a fact that FOX remains the most watched cable news channel, it is increasingly unpopular with the demographics most critical to a progressive Democrat like Warren. In fact, the most recent April 2019 data shows that FOX is way down (-19%) in the critical 25-54 demographic as compared to April 2018. That’s a huge decline of nearly 1/5th of the total audience in that demographic, with the largest decline coming in primetime viewership.
Put another way, younger people are abandoning FOX in droves (a 20% decline year-on-year is massive, regardless of the industry), leaving the cable channel ever more reliant on Baby Boomers to sustain it. Couple that with the fact that the 2018 midterm elections provide ample evidence about where young people are politically – voters under 30 preferred Democrats by a +31-percentage point margin – and it seems clear where the energy for a progressive should be focused.
To add a bit more data to back this up, Pew Research (one of the most reliable polling agencies) found some very interesting demographic information going into 2020. They note:
“Baby Boomers and older generations, who will be ages 56 and older next year, are expected to account for fewer than four-in-ten eligible voters in 2020. This is a significant change from 2000, when nearly seven-in-ten eligible voters (68%) were Boomers, Silents or members of the Greatest Generation (collectively, those ages 36 and older at the time). Even as recently as 2012, when the youngest Boomer was 48 years old, Boomer and older generations were about half of the electorate (49%).”
The numbers speak for themselves. Voters are getting younger, less white, and more progressive. And, perhaps reflective of the demographic changes, FOX is losing young viewership.
So then who exactly would Warren have been speaking to on FOX? Mostly old, white Boomers who are already politically decided and not terribly interested in listening to a woman they’ve been conditioned for years to loathe. The number of conservatives actually willing to engage in critical thought via FOX is likely low, though it must be said that Bernie Sanders performed well on FOX (more on that later).
And so, rather than trying to reach for some unquantified, though likely small, number of open-minded FOX viewers, Warren is pursuing a very different strategy, one which could pay off bigtime.
FOX as the Foil
Part of the reason I am arguing that Warren’s decision to spurn FOX and post a damning series of tweets taking down the network as conspiracy-mongers and peddlers of “hate-for-profit” was a good one has to do with the tasks and challenges before Warren’s campaign.
First, she is fighting to create a space for her campaign to inhabit in what is a historically unprecedented field of seemingly hundreds of candidates (it’s really like two dozen). Unlike Bernie Sanders, Warren does not have an already existing grassroots movement of hundreds of thousands supporting her. Nor does she have the benefit of having been the Vice President to Barack Obama who, despite his warmongering imperialism and general disregard of workers in favor of the rich, is now seen as wildly popular and successful as president. And so Biden, unlike Warren, has the benefit of not needing a fully formed movement to back him as he rides the coattails of Obama’s legacy.
So for Warren to carve out a space for herself she has to cobble together a coalition of disparate elements within the Democratic base.
She wants to be the non-Bernie option for progressives everywhere thanks to her policies and track record of consumer protection and anti-Wall Street. This means appealing to those voters already backing Bernie who will need another candidate to support if Bernie’s campaign stalls, or some other issue makes his candidacy no longer viable.
At the same time Warren is desperate to become the fallback option for the #NeverBernie crowd which is substantial. So much animosity remains from the 2016 campaign that there are plenty of Democrats I’ve spoken to who said they will not vote for Bernie unless it’s between he and Trump. This means that if the Clintonite candidates like Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, O’Rourke, Buttigieg, etc. fizzle out, there will be a significant number of voters looking for a landing spot. And Warren wants to be that landing spot.
And it is with this second group that the refusal to go on FOX will really resonate. The mainstream liberals see FOX as illegitimate fake news (which it often is) and regard Bernie as an anti-Hillary sexist pandering to Trumpists to get their votes. So Warren has made a very calculated strategic decision to set herself apart from Sanders in that regard. Sanders plays nice with FOX so Warren punches them in the nose. This is how you make yourself into an interesting candidate, regardless of whether you agree with the tactic.
So here is where I want to address a valid point raised by Sanders’ National Press Secretary Briahna Joy Gray who tweeted in response to stats guru Nate Silver:
I think that what Bernie gets — and Nate doesn’t — is that 33% of Fox news viewers identify as Independent or Dem, and that regardless, the president is responsible for the lives and wellbeing of all Americans, and should be able to effectively communicate with them.
The point is well taken in regard to the necessity of the president to speak to all Americans. And certainly Sanders intends to be president. But there is something else embedded in her tweet that is much more problematic – this idea that 33% identify as Independent or Democrat.
The vast majority of that group she’s referring to are identifying as Independents or “Mixed” (a mix of liberal and conservative). And it’s true that Pew Research has shown that:
“While Fox News is a dominant source for conservatives, it also draws a significant portion of its audience from across the ideological spectrum: Those with mixed ideological views make up 37% of its audience (they make up 36% of all panelists), and those to the left of center account for 18% of its audience (14% mostly liberal, 4% consistently liberal).” Another way of slicing things up is to take the “mixed” category and the two liberal categories, and you end up with 55 percent of the Fox News audience that doesn’t self-identify as conservative.”
But looking at this a little more carefully, we have to be cautious about jumping to any conclusions. Any data based on how voters self-identify is inherently flawed as self-identification is one of the least reliable measures of actual political ideology.
Taking just one anecdotal example, my own parents (who both watch FOX regularly) would NEVER self-identify as right wing conservative Republicans. They’d typically say they are “independent” but always end up voting Republican. So are they “Independents” watching FOX? Yes. Are they actually Independents watching FOX? Not a chance. And this is likely true for so many of the so-called Independents in their viewing audience.
You know who else was/is an “Independent”? Bill O’Reilly. It’s true, he touted it regularly on his program and in interviews for years. Does any serious person actually believe that O’Reilly is an Independent? Or is it maybe possible that that term is used to simply avoid self-identifying as Republican? It is not unreasonable to assume that much of that 33% Ms. Joy-Gray referred to is similarly situated.
But there is something else that separates Sanders and Warren: their opponents.
As already mentioned, Sanders has the benefit of a huge movement behind him. This affords him the luxury of running against two similar candidates – Joe Biden and Donald Trump. He is staring at Biden in the primary, and it is Biden who really dominates with the 55+ crowd that could potentially be watching FOX. Similarly, he is running against Trump who has potentially alienated some small, though significant, proportion of the FOX audience. For these reasons, Sanders going on FOX makes sense.
But Warren is running against the field of Democrats, not Trump. She doesn’t need to woo alienated Trumpists and neocons so much as she needs to energize young people and other Democratic base voters who aren’t already all in for Bernie.
For her, rejecting FOX represented a way to distinguish herself, to take the lead in a discourse and culture war, the war against fake news, etc. She sets up FOX as a foil, the Iago to her Othello, the Lennie to her George. She casts herself as the crusader of truth against the mouthpieces of Trumpian lies. It’s not a bad move.
The 2020 Democratic primaries, like the general election, will likely hinge on turnout. For Trump, even a slight decrease in voter turnout and enthusiasm could prove disastrous as states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan were very close in 2016 and have seen even more economic devastation since the MAGA train left the station. If even a few percentage points are lost, that could be enough to flip the states and thus the election.
And for Democrats, both in the primary and general election, it’s about turning out the base. While every election is about turnout, so often these contests are decided by “swing voters” or “independents” as we’re told. But 2020 will not simply be about the “undecideds” it will be about the unmotivated, unengaged, and uninspired.
And here is the final, and perhaps most important point of all: FOX’s audience is negligible compared to the vast sea of 100 million Americans with the legal right to vote who did not participate in 2016.
Let me say it again, clearly: The number of non-voters in the US is roughly 100 times larger than FOX’s entire audience. THAT is where the election could be won or lost, not on FOX News.
And that is where Warren seems to be placing her bet. It’s not the she doesn’t want to reach some conservative voters, especially in places like Iowa which are so critical for the primary season. She does. It’s not that she doesn’t have appeal with policies like using anti-trust law to break up Big Ag and resurrect family farms, or stopping the banks, etc. Those policies are supported by majorities of conservatives across the country.
She just doesn’t believe she needs FOX to reach these people and sell these ideas.
And I happen to agree with her.