Why DNC barring Fox News from debates hurts party candidates

The Democratic National Committee has scheduled 10 debates thus far for the 2020 presidential election campaign, which is already in full swing. Not surprisingly, CNN and MSNBC/NBC/Telemundo have been awarded two of those debates airing this summer, which could ultimately feature somewhere in the range of 20 candidates and therefore may be split up into two debates or more per location.  

But when faced with the decision of whether to award a primary debate to Fox News, the top-rated channel on basic cable, the DNC decided to play to its base than expand the voter net in rejecting the network. 

In a Wednesday afternoon statement, DNC Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE said he had held conversations with Fox News about potentially allowing the network to host a primary debate. But he said a story published in The New Yorker about the network's alleged ties with the Trump administration prompted the committee to end the Fox consideration. 
 
“Recent reporting in The New Yorker on the inappropriate relationship between President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE, his administration and FOX News has led me to conclude that the network is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates. Therefore, FOX News will not serve as a media partner for the 2020 Democratic primary debates,” Perez said.

The decision by Perez comes after some Democratic candidates have appeared on the network. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (D-Minn.) appeared on anchor Bret Baier's "Special Report," in February, for example.

"One of the reasons I came on this show is that I believe that candidates for office, whether Democrat or Republican, have to go not just where it’s comfortable but where it’s uncomfortable. And I love you," she told Baier on Feb. 12. "But you know, Fox may not always be comfortable for Democrats but I want to make that point.”  

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Other candidates have followed suit. Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico MORE (D-Hawaii) joined Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonFox's Neil Cavuto rips into Trump over attacks on Chris Wallace's impeachment coverage CBS employee fired for allegedly leaking Robach hot mic clip denies she leaked the tape Megyn Kelly teases interview with woman reportedly fired after leak of hot mic Epstein video MORE last week, primarily to discuss her position on the Syrian conflict and the U.S. role in it. Afterward, Gabbard — an Iraq War veteran — touted the interview to her nearly 300,000 followers.

In February, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisFive takeaways from the Democratic debate Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (D-Calif.) was interviewed by Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy. Presumptive presidential candidate Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was interviewed by Fox host Chris Wallace. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin Delaney2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum Poll: Biden holds 20-point lead in South Carolina Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne MORE (D-Md.) was interviewed by Fox anchor Martha MacCallum. Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, who has hinted at running as an independent candidate, sat down with former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, currently an afternoon host on Fox, a few weeks ago. 

So why appear on Fox News for what invariably are more challenging, or as Klobuchar put it, less comfortable interviews? 

The answer is two-fold. First, raw numbers: Klobuchar's interview with Baier delivered 2.5 million viewers, or easily more than twice the amount who tuned in to CNN's Town Hall with Klobuchar in February, which took in just 1.17 million total viewers. In Gabbard's case, her Feb. 28 appearance was watched by more than 3 million viewers. The Hawaii congresswoman has a Town Hall on CNN on Sunday night, which will likely generate an audience more in the 1 million range. Delaney, a relative unknown in a crowded field, was watched by 2 million people when interviewed on MacCallum's "The Story."  He will also get a CNN Town Hall on Sunday night.

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Bottom line: All exposure is a good thing. An hour on CNN's national stage despite the smaller audience is something any candidate would gladly take. But the electoral map changed in 2016. The "blue wall" that was supposed to protect and propel Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Harris rips Gabbard over Fox appearances during Obama years Steyer, Gabbard and Yang shut out of early minutes of Democratic debate MORE to the highest office in the land came crashing down after Donald Trump picked off Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, the first time a Republican nominee won those three states in the same election since Ronald Reagan, who took 49 of 50 in blowing out Walter Mondale in '84. 

So if you're a Democratic White House hopeful, the road goes ultimately through the Midwest, the Rust Belt, and states like Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada. Therefore, appearing on Fox News and doing interviews with other outlets outside what is perceived largely as comfort zones will be a necessity, if capturing the same independent and blue-dog voters Trump swayed in 2016 is the goal. 

Debate moderators are also important. In Fox News's case, it was hard to argue that anchor Chris Wallace wasn't easily the best moderator of the dozens that were called upon in the primaries and the general election campaign in 2015 and 2016. And few would argue that Baier or MacCallum (the latter replacing Megyn Kelly this time around) are advocates for Trump or his administration. Even the network's harshest critics will tell you all are solid journalists who ask tough, relevant questions. 

“We hope the DNC will reconsider its decision to bar Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, all of whom embody the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism, from moderating a Democratic presidential debate," said Bill Sammon, senior vice president and managing editor of the Fox News Washington bureau. "They’re the best debate team in the business and they offer candidates an important opportunity to make their case to the largest TV news audience in America, which includes many persuadable voters.”

The last time a sitting Democratic president was challenged in 2012, the Republican National Committee awarded MSNBC a debate.  

Now with the shoe on the other foot with the blue team looking to oust a Republican president, the DNC would be wise to do the same with outlets its candidates normally don't run to.

Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of "WOR Tonight with Joe Concha and Lis Wiehl" weeknights on 710-WOR in New York.