On most nights, Fox News viewers will hear the 2020 Democratic candidates for president referred to as “Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Bernie” and “Mini Mike,” the derisive nicknames given by President Trump to Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg.
But election nights are different on Fox News. Trump defenders Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham had the night off, as did provocateur Tucker Carlson. The Super Tuesday coverage led by co-anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum was straight-ahead, devoid of the combative ridicule of Democrats that is the trademark of the network’s popular prime-time shows.
The opposing political analysts who joined Baier and MacCallum at the desk in the midtown Manhattan studio, including Republican operative Karl Rove and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, were downright genial to one anther as they broke down the results that came in during the night, putting aside ideology and using their knowledge of voting trends.
Updates on the coronavirus were presented with none of the comments about Democrats politicizing the crisis that had become a hot talking point on the network in recent days. When Biden’s gaffes and mangled syntax came up for discussion, analyst Brit Hume pointed out that the Democrat will be on a level playing field with Trump if they meet in the general election.
“The loser will be the English language,” Hume quipped.
Fox News has long maintained that its journalists, pollsters and election analysts operate separately from the opinion side. But it has become a harder position to defend as Trump gives nearly all of his interviews to his supporters on the channel, some of whom, such as Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, provide counsel to him privately.
The intense pro-Trump advocacy has led critics to call Fox News state TV. One of its star anchors, Shepard Smith, left the network last year because he grew weary of the rhetoric being dispensed by the opinion hosts.
Baier has been hearing the complaint for years but said he remains comfortable operating alongside the partisan flamethrowers who draw the biggest ratings on the channel. He politely responds to Fox fans on social media who think his even-handed approach is too critical of the president. Even Trump has teed off on Fox News journalists when he sees unfriendly coverage.
Baier, who anchors the network’s nightly “Special Report” from Washington, knows that viewers expect a conservative take on the news. But he believes most of them recognize that election nights are exempt from a right-wing filter.
“They have come to expect the election team to give it to them straight, especially following the Democratic primary,” Baier said in an interview Wednesday. “Now do some viewers take it as chicken and broccoli and they would rather have some dessert? Yes, I think so. But we also expand our viewership exponentially. Our ratings on these big nights have been large, even though it doesn’t fit what people think Fox News is.”
Nielsen data supports that view. Fox News drew 4.1 million viewers from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, better than its typical program lineup and more than any other network on broadcast or cable on the night, according to Nielsen. CNN did have the edge in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic coveted by advertisers.
Three years ago Fox News left the consortium of news organizations that conducts exit polling in national elections and developed its own voter survey with the Associated Press and National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The investment in extensive online and telephone queries of 117,000 people appeared to be paying off as the network was able to accurately get results up faster than its competitors.
Off-camera, in a conference room one level below the studio, two dozen election analysts and statisticians were shoulder to shoulder at long tables, crunching data coming in from the 14 states holding Democratic primaries that showed Biden making an extraordinary comeback a week after his candidacy appeared to be on life support.
“It was literally one of the most historic turnarounds for a candidate I’ve ever seen,” said MacCallum. “It’s fun to be surprised by the American people and their votes.”
Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt said the multistate primary is a dry run for the big night in November when he expands the size of his staff to handle the general election. “This is like if you were a marathon runner and you’re doing a 10K,” he said. “It’s the first stretch of the year.”
Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday” and known as the network’s toughest interrogator of politicians from both parties, said during a break in the coverage that there has been no change in his approach over his long run at the network, even with Trump in the White House.
“In 16 years I’ve never been second-guessed about a guest I’ve booked or a question I asked,” he said. “They just say, ‘Go out and do a good job and be equally tough on everyone.’”
Trump is known to call Fox News executives when he is unhappy about coverage. Wallace does not know if he has ever been the subject of such a call. “If the president has called, no one has ever told me,” he said.
Fox News has been unable to land a Democratic primary debate, as the Democratic National Committee does not believe the network is fair to the party. But Biden’s strong night was preceded by his first appearance on “Fox News Sunday” since 2007.
Brazile, who is coming up on her first anniversary as a Fox News contributor, supports the idea of Democrats appearing on the network. The manager of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and perhaps the highest-profile Democrat to have a regular role on the network acknowledges that she took flak from people on both sides of the political spectrum for joining the network. But she has no regrets.
“I made the right decision,” Brazile said after one of her segments on Tuesday. “I wanted to be part of an operation and part of a team that talks to voters that I believe Democrats have lost touch with. For me, it’s been a good experience. I don’t consider Republicans or conservatives to be my enemy. I consider them worthy opponents who are American citizens who believe the role of government should be limited. I believe the role of government is to insure that no one gets left behind and there is a safety net to catch people that might fall through.”
But Brazile can dish it out against the Republicans when necessary. She trended on Twitter earlier in the day after a Fox News appearance in which she said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel could “go to hell” for suggesting the Democratic primary process was “rigged” against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Brazile was standing by her response hours later. “To suggest somehow that the Democratic party is participating in some campaign to deny one of the candidates an opportunity to get delegates is just a falsehood that I felt compelled to challenge,” she said. “I’m a woman of strong opinions. That’s why I’m on Fox News.”