washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Measuring the Political Influence of Fox News vs. MSNBC

In his column “Study: Democrats vulnerable to Fox News’s magical powers,” WaPo media commentator Erik Wemple looks at the political influence of the conservative network. Among Wemple’s observations:

“Were a viewer initially at the ideology of the median Democratic voter in 2008 to watch an additional 3 minutes of Fox News per week, her likelihood of voting Republican would increase by 1.03 percentage points,” reads the study by Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu of Emory and Stanford universities, respectively. Another finding: Fox News holds more sway over Democrats than MSNBC holds over Republicans.

Numbers go with that assertion. According to the study, published in the American Economic Review, Fox News racked up “persuasion rates” of 58 percent in 2000, 27 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2008. What’s a persuasion rate, anyway? It’s a thingy in which the numerator measures Fox News viewers “who are initially Democrats but by the end of an election cycle change to supporting the Republican party. The denominator is the number of [Fox News] viewers who are initially Democrats.” Corresponding figures for MSNBC — Republicans converting to Democrats, that is — are 16 percent, 0 percent and 8 percent. Asked about Fox News’s Democratic audience, Martin told this blog via email, “Given Fox’s content, yes, it is likely that these Democrats are relatively less ideologically committed and more persuadable compared to Democrats who don’t watch Fox.”

At Vox, Dylan Matthews reports that “A stunning new study shows that Fox News is more powerful than we ever imagined: It could even be flipping elections.” Mathews adds,

Fox News is, by far, America’s dominant TV news channel; in the second quarter of 2017, Fox posted 2.35 million total viewers in primetime versus 1.64 million for MSNBC and 1.06 million for CNN. Given that Fox was founded by a longtime Republican Party operative and has almost exclusively hired conservative commentators, talk radio hosts, and the like to host its shows, it would stand to reason that its dominance on basic cable could influence how Americans vote, perhaps even tipping elections.

A new study in the American Economic Review (the discipline’s flagship journal), with an intriguing and persuasive methodology, finds exactly that. Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimate that watching Fox News directly causes a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ attitudes, which translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.

They estimate that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008.

For context, that would’ve made John Kerry the 2004 popular vote winner, and turned Barack Obama’s 2008 victory into a landslide where he got 60 percent of the two-party vote.

Matthews continues,

The effects of CNN and MSNBC on centrist voters are mostly negligible; MSNBC, in 2000 and 2004, modestly increased odds of voting Republican, before it turned left in time for 2008. But Fox News increases Republican voting odds for centrists, for Democratic viewers, and even, in 2004 and 2008, for Republicans already strongly inclined to vote that way. Watching three minutes more of Fox News per week in 2008 would have made the typical Democratic or centrist voter 1 percentage point likelier to vote Republican that year.

“Fox is substantially better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans,” the authors find. While most Fox viewers are Republican, a sizable minority aren’t, and they’re particularly suggestible to the channel’s influence. In 2000, they estimate that 58 percent of Fox viewers who were initially Democrats changed to supporting the Republican candidate by the end of the election cycle; in 2004, the persuasion rate was 27 percent, and 28 percent in 2008. MSNBC, by contrast, only persuaded 8 percent of initial Republicans to vote Democratic in the 2008 cycle.

These are big effects, with major societal implications. The authors find that the Fox News effect translates into a 0.46 percentage point boost to the GOP vote share in the 2000 presidential race, a 3.59-point boost in 2004, and a 6.34-point boost in 2008; the boost increases as the channel’s viewership grew. This effect alone is large enough, they argue, to explain all the polarization in the US public’s political views from 2000 to 2008.

…”Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure,” economists Stefano DellaVigna (Berkeley) and Ethan Kaplan (Maryland) found in a seminal 2007 paper.

Fox still has a lot of clout, but TV Newser’s A. J. Katz reports:

…For the 4th straight month, MSNBC finished 1st in A18-49 for weekday prime (M-F 8-11pm) in the month of August 2017, according to Nielsen. MSNBC averaged 364,000 viewers A18-49 (vs. FOX News’ 348,000 and CNN’s 358,000); 514,000 viewers A25-54 (vs. CNN’s 448,000); and 2.31 million viewers (vs. CNN’s 1.28 million viewers). In total viewers, MSNBC finished at #2 among all cable networks in weekday prime (ahead of HGTV and TBS, just behind FOX News), posting the network’s best viewer delivery ever and topping CNN in total viewers for the 9th month in a row. In A25-54, MSNBC also beat CNN for 6th month in a row. Additionally, MSNBC outpaced FOX News’ and CNN’s growth year over year in the key demographics: +62% in A18-49 (vs. FOX News’ +13% and CNN’s +39%), +61% in A25-54 (vs. FOX News’ +22% and CNN’s +44%), and +63% in total viewers (vs. FOX News’ +4% and CNN’s +32%).

MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” was the #1 show across all of cable news, beating FOX News and CNN in the key demographics of A25-54 and A18-49 and total viewers. This is the 6th consecutive month in A25-54 and the 4th straight month in total viewers that “Maddow” topped all of cable news. “Maddow” delivered its best total viewer delivery ever for a month, averaging 2.8 million total viewers and 630,000 viewers A25-54.

Writing in the conservative webzine, The Blaze, Chris Enloe explains why “Rachel Maddow is dominating cable news — and it’s not even close.” and notes, “When it came to the coveted 25-54 demographic, Maddow blew her competition out of the water. The liberal darling also led her competition in the younger 18-49 demographic.”

In addition to Maddow’s growing popularity, MSNBC has benefitted from improving viewership figures for both late evening liberal political talker Lawrence O’Donnell and center-right ‘Morning Joe’ Scarborough. Further, notes Enloe,

It’s not immediately clear what is leading to MSNBC’s ratings surge. But one has to believe that the shake-up plaguing Trump’s White House and near-constant unfavorable coverage of his administration is playing a part.

It’s likely that Fox News’ own turmoil has played a role in mediocre ratings. This year, the network has seen the departure of its two biggest stars — Megyn Kelly, who left for NBC News, and Bill O’Reilly, who was fired — while accusations of workplace sexual misconduct continue to plague the network.

Taking a step back and looking at the big picture, it’s clear that Fox News is still a powerful source of political opinion-shaping, but MSNBC’s influence is rising very fast. CNN is going to have to do some more creative news programming to get in the political influence game.

Television remains the the powerhouse in terms of political ad placement, as Steve Lozano reports in his post, “TV Continuses to Thrive in an Increasingly Digital World” at Campaigns & Elections.  It’s unclear, however, if TV News is still the dominant media for shaping political opinion and voter choices, given the rapidly rising influence of social media (even if much of it is ‘preaching to the choir’). What is absolutely certain is that Democratic candidates better have a savvy strategy in place for both.

3 comments on “Measuring the Political Influence of Fox News vs. MSNBC

  1. Jack Olson on

    If there is a causation, how do they know which direction the causation runs? Do people become more conservative because they watch Fox News or do they watch Fox News because they have become more conservative?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *