Democratic presidential candidates agonize over Fox News town halls

By Cara Korte

/ CBS News

2020 candidates weigh in on Trump's tariffs

Democratic presidential hopefuls are running in a crowded, 24-way race. In order to differentiate themselves, candidates must manufacture, or hope for, solitary moments in the sun.

One way to do so is to participate in nationally televised town halls. Multiple cable networks have offered candidates this chance, including CNN, MSNBC and Fox News; however, only one has turned participation into a political statement.

Earlier this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren publicly declined an invitation to join a Fox town hall. She then went one step further, tweeting her boycott of Fox News, claiming the network, "is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracy theorists."

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Warren, in attempt to separate Fox News viewers from its journalists, said that she's "running a campaign to reach all Americans" and that the network is welcome to have representation at her events on the road.

However, not participating in a Fox News town hall means the candidate is walking away from potentially addressing millions of viewers. The network consistency is the highest rated of all cable competitors, and attracts a healthy number of independents, who can vote in crucial Democratic contests like the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.

A 2018 Suffolk University poll showed Fox News had the highest number of independent viewers compared to any other cable network, while a 2014 Pew study indicated that roughly a third of its viewers were independents.

Tad Devine, the chief strategist for Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign, questioned whether Warren's pass was the right move. But Devine has also acknowledged that the senator must find a way to distinguish herself, especially from fellow progressive Sanders.

"She's a classic example of competing for Bernie Sanders' space," Devine told CBS News. "[Rejecting Fox] could make daylight between [Warren] and Bernie."

The first, and perhaps most successful, Democrat to participate in a Fox News town hall was Sanders. Not only did his appearance have the highest viewership of his opponents — the most watched candidate town hall on any network thus far this cycle – but it produced a positive viral moment.

When discussing Sanders' signature Medicare-For-All pledge, co-moderator Bret Baier asked the audience how may would be willing to lose their private insurance in order to adopt the government-funded system. While there's no telling how many of Fox's viewers raised their hands, a number of arms in the live studio audience sprouted into the air amid loud cheers.

Since Sanders, two other Democratic hopefuls have participated: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Notably, Buttigieg also created a moment that popped when he on-air chastised rhetoric from Fox News hosts, specifically calling out Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

While Warren is the only candidate to have announced a boycott of the network, Sen. Kamala Harris – who has never given Fox a sit-down interview as a senator – also rejected the request to appear in a town hall forum earlier this month.

Completely abstaining from the network is even a notion the Democratic National Committee, which chose to keep Fox News from hosting a primary debate, disagrees.

In a statement to CBS News, a spokesperson for the DNC said, "While we don't believe Fox is equipped to be a partner for a 2020 debate because of concerns of fairness at the highest levels within their organization, we believe that we must reach all voters and that means having Democrats appear on Fox in order to engage their audience. That is why you have seen Chair Tom Perez, DNC officers and staff regularly appear on Fox."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who will take the Fox News stage Saturday evening, has a similar view.

"A president must have the courage to meet people where they are and make their case about issues from healthcare to climate change and gun violence prevention," Gillibrand told CBS News in a statement. "Millions of Americans watch Fox and I want to make the case to them that I can improve their lives far better than President Trump."

Former Housing and Urban Development Sec. Julían Castro will be the fifth Democratic candidate to appear later this month. All potential participants will hope for moments that gain traction, like the ones Sanders and Buttigieg created.

More broadly than message, at this stage in the campaign candidates ought to be focused on sheer total of media impressions, according to Terry Sullivan, Marco Rubio's 2016 campaign manager and co-founder of Firehouse Strategies.

"As Trump showed all of us, the more earned media you can get the better you will do. It doesn't matter if it's even bad."

Dr. Lauren Feldman studies partisan media practices and strategy as an Associate Professor at Rutgers' Department of Journalism & Media Studies School of Communication and Information. She said in a field where everyone is vying for the spotlight, Warren's decision to steer clear of Fox News was a way to get attention.

However, Feldman also points out that Democrats appearing on Fox News "are not only getting an hour devoted exclusively to them on a largely viewed news network, they're also going to get more coverage for that particular type of town hall because it is unconventional. They are making a statement by appearing on Fox."

Sullivan said that that statement is ultimately a smart one to make.

"Not a lot of Dem primary voters are watching Fox News. But at the same time there sure as hell are a lot of general election swing voters who do," Sullivan said. Condemning Fox News is, "a very smart two dimensional political play. It's also a very stupid three dimensional play."

First published on May 31, 2019 / 3:58 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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