There are Republicans, and then there are “Fox News Republicans” — and on some issues, there’s a statistically significant gap between the two.
That’s according to the latest survey on American values conducted annually by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
The organization found that about 40% of Republicans say they trust Fox News more than any other news source, comprising what the institute’s founder and CEO Robert P. Jones called “a party within a party.”
While the so-called “Fox News Republicans” is a minority, it’s a “big minority” whose views diverge by more than 10 percentage points from other Republicans in many areas, including their views on President Donald Trump and whether voting by mail is secure.
For the most part, Fox News Republicans love their president and a majority of them say there’s nothing he could do to change their minds. Yet Trump didn’t create this subset of Republicans, Jones and other analysts say. “Fox had been organizing these voters long before Trump walked onto the stage,” Jones said at an Oct. 19 virtual roundtable discussion on the report sponsored by the Brookings Institution.
And Trump himself has been critical of some coverage he’s received from the cable news network this year, once even calling for an alternative to the ratings giant. But he regularly consumes Fox content, and according to to Media Matters for America, has live-tweeted Fox programs more than 1,100 times in the past two years.
Fox News Republicans may have counterparts who could be called “MSNBC Democrats” and similarly differ from Democrats who don’t watch the liberal-leaning cable news channel. Still, analysts note that both groups are minorities within their parties, since fewer than a quarter of Americans follow politics closely.
Here’s how Republicans and Fox News Republicans differ, according to Public Religion Research Institute’s 11th annual American Values Survey, which represents the opinions of more than 2,000 American adults interviewed by telephone in September.
‘Party within a party’
Fox, founded by Rupert Murdoch in 1996, made ratings history recently when it surpassed the legacy networks in primetime for the third quarter of 2020. In that same quarter, four of the five most-watched cable news shows belonged to Fox, including marquee names Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, Forbes magazine reported.
Despite its consistently successful ratings, Fox does not enjoy the attention — or trust — of all Americans. Pew Research Center reported earlier this year that 43% of American adults say they trust Fox for political news, but just a slightly lower number, 40%, said they distrust Fox.
But in November of 2019, 6 in 10 Republicans said they had gotten some or all of their news from the network, Pew said.
In the American Values Survey, Jones and his co-panelists noted the “daylight” between Republicans who say they most trust Fox News and other Republicans, on virtually every issue.
“Right now, what you essentially have is a party within a party that is organized around its allegiance to Fox News, and to this president,” Jones said.
With regard to the spread of the coronavirus, for example, 69% of all Americans, and 92% of Democrats, said the pandemic could have been handled better. Just 22% of Fox News Republicans said the spread could have been better controlled, compared to 40% of other Republicans. And 28% of Republicans said they believed the virus developed naturally (as opposed to being developed in a lab) compared to 17% of Fox News Republicans.
More than three-quarters (79%) of Fox News Republicans believe the country is headed in the right direction, compared to 58% of other Republicans and a third of Americans overall.
And with regard to the president’s comportment while in office, a majority of Fox News Republicans do not believe that he has damaged the dignity of the office. Nine percent agreed with that statement, compared to 38% of other Republicans and 63% of Americans overall.
And, “Republicans who most trust Fox News (27%) are less than half as likely as those who trust any other source (59%) to say they wish Trump behaved more like previous presidents.”
Additionally, “Nearly all Republicans who report trusting Fox News most for television news (97%) approve of the job Trump is doing in office, including 82% who strongly approve. Among all other Republicans, 78% approve of the president and 42% strongly approve,” the report said.
‘A very powerful story’
Anthony Nadler, an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania who studies conservative news and its consumers, noted that while a gap between Republicans and Fox News Republicans sometimes exists, “they are still closer to each other than to Democrats.”
Fox and other conservative outlets appeal to Americans who are skeptical of traditional sources of news, and they cultivate loyalty and trust in how they present their content, Nadler said.
“Conservative media tells a very powerful story to their listeners, viewers and readers by painting a picture of the world in which powerful, liberal forces really look down on them. … Fox and conservative politicians are there to defend them as a group.
“It makes for emotionally compelling narrative, and it helps bring people to politics, if you think of political battle as ‘Who are the good people? Are they my team, or are they the other team?’ It really adds a visceral component to the emotional story of what’s happening in politics,” said Nadler, co-editor, with A.J. Bauer, of “News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures.”
Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted at the Brookings event that Democrats devoted to MSNBC and other left-leaning news outlets may also comprise a subset within the Democratic Party, although the survey did not include a breakdown looking at liberal-leaning coverage. “If you put MSNBC and CNN together, you’d probably see something similar,” Bowman said.
But E.J. Dionne Jr., a senior fellow at Brookings and columnist for The Washington Post, said Democrats tend to consume a more diverse menu of media than Republicans do, and added, “Fox has a power, I think, in our politics, that no other network does.”
Kathleen Searles, associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University, however, believes that Fox’s influence is exaggerated. People come to the network because they already have certain beliefs; for the most part, they’re not being changed by watching Fox, she said.
A nurtured audience
Analysts sometimes employ a “hypodermic needle model” to the relationships between news outlets and consumers of news, believing the media directly imparts their views. “We know that’s not true. It’s way more complicated,” Searles said. “Most people come fully formed to their media, and the media just has effects on the margins, not the other way around.”
She also noted that, while it’s tempting to draw broad conclusions about the electorate from surveys like this, it’s important to remember that there are Republicans who don’t pay much attention to news except when it’s time to vote. In fact, despite its strong showing in ratings in the third quarter of 2020, during prime time, Fox reported slightly more than 3.5 million viewers, a fraction of the 139 million Americans who voted in 2016.
And writing for The New York Times this week, political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan said that 80% to 85% of Americans follow politics “casually or not at all.”
“Just 15% to 20% follow it closely (the people we call ‘deeply involved’): the group of people who monitor everything from covfefe to the politics of ‘Cuties’.”
As such, Fox nurtures a loyal audience cognizant of their nature, Searles said. “People consume Fox News because they have this engaged partisanship; they’re generally more extreme in their attitudes and consume more news. … It’s not that they watch Fox and become like this. It’s that they find Fox because they are this way.”
But according to the PRRI survey, both Fox News Republicans and Republicans who prefer other news sources have something important in common with Democrats and other Americans: They all are optimistic about the future, believing that America’s best days lie ahead.