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How the rise of Fox News helped Republican candidates

July 8, 2013

By Dan Hopkins

fox-news-logoIn the wake of a presidential election, there is an understandable focus on what is holding back the losing party. But we shouldn’t ignore the factors that have advantaged the GOP in recent elections. And as a pair of recent studies show, the Fox News cable channel is one such advantage.

For researchers, isolating the political effects of media outlets is a tricky business. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that some 40 percent of Republicans reported watching Fox News, as opposed to just 20 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats. The chief explanation for those audience demographics has to be that Republicans tend to prefer the coverage that Fox provides. But how might we separate out the influence of Fox News on the Americans who watch it from the factors that make some Americans more likely to watch it in the first place?

In a 2007 article, economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan provided one creative answer. Fox News didn’t become available overnight in towns nationwide. Instead, it was gradually introduced beginning in 1996—and as late as 2000, it was available in only about 20 percent of U.S. cities. What’s more, the main reason that Fox was available in some places but not others had to do with patterns of cable ownership. Fox News deliberately targeted larger cable providers as part of its strategy to expand its audience and to rival CNN in market share. So while some towns had Fox News access, other towns—towns with similar political leanings but different cable providers—did not.

That gradual introduction allowed DellaVigna and Kaplan to compare 2000 presidential voting in towns with and without access to the Fox News cable channel across 28 states. Doing so, they concluded that Fox News access provided a demonstrable boost to George W. Bush’s vote totals. Between 1996 and 2000, a town with Fox News saw an increase in its GOP vote share of between 0.4 and 0.7 percentage points relative to demographically similar towns without Fox News. Effects of that size are politically influential, and larger than the effect of airing 1,000 TV advertisements. In short, they matter politically, even in elections that are not as razor-tight as 2000.

To be sure, the market for television news has changed dramatically since 2000, and Fox News’ audience and coverage have changed as well. But even a decade ago, the Fox News cable channel provided a take on the news that was right-leaning relative to other major media outlets, as scholars including Tim Groseclose, Jeffrey Milyo and John Gasper have demonstrated. From its inception, Fox News provided prime-time slots to commentators including Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. And the evidence marshaled by DellaVigna and Kaplan suggests that its coverage was politically influential even as early as 2000.

Still, the political implications of the Fox News effect depend on whether it is principally Democrats, independents, or Republicans who are influenced. Is Fox News primarily reinforcing Republicans or persuading Democrats? In recent research, Jonathan M. Ladd and I take up that issue by matching town-level data on Fox News availability with respondents to the 2000 National Annenberg Election Survey. That telephone survey interviewed almost 58,000 Americans during and after that year’s presidential campaign, allowing us to break out the effects of access to Fox News for various groups of Americans.

Our analyses find that the effect of Fox News is concentrated among Republican identifiers and pure independents, with Democrats and independents who lean Democratic voicing the same (low) level of support for George W. Bush irrespective of their access to Fox News. Read the rest of the story at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

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