At the start of his career, not long after he helped Richard Nixon win the 1968 election, Roger Ailes boasted to a reporter that television would one day replace the political party as the most powerful force in American politics. If there is any doubt that the Fox News founder has largely made that prediction come true, it should be erased by the panic that next week’s Fox debate is stoking inside the GOP.
In a year that features the largest primary field in modern history — not to mention Donald Trump as a front-runner — campaign strategists worry that Ailes's debate, which is likely to attract the biggest audience in cable-news history, could define the race more than five months before the first votes are cast.
Ailes has now made the the circus free to all comers.
Fox News is opening its 5 p.m. debate to all the announced Republican candidates who fail to make the cut for the Aug. 6 prime-time event, removing a requirement that participants reach at least 1 percent in polling.
The change amounts to an insurance policy for candidates who were in danger of being disqualified from the vital first debate based on low polls – Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The announcement by Michael Clemente, Fox News Executive Vice President, News, means that all 16 announced candidates will qualify for Cleveland — either the 5 p.m. undercard, or the 9 p.m. main event.
The 9 p.m. debate will include the 10 candidates with the highest average in national polls, as determined by Fox News. The 5 p.m. forum will now include all the rest.
I'm already scheduled for a watch party next Thursday. We're talking Super Bowl here, except nobody is waiting for the commercials.
Oh, and the people who run Fox News are geniuses. What did they get by instituting these caps (that they have now removed)? Not just constant appearances from the candidates themselves in their desperate quests for exposure, but now feedback in the form of actual money, too. Chris Christie is forking over 250-large to Fox News in ad revenue, for the purpose of securing a dais onstage during Donald Trump’s 90-minute monologue in Cleveland. He probably will not be the last candidate to make the last such purchase, and there will be more and more capped debates forthcoming.
More broadly, though, consider what’s happening here. A candidate who will not have that much official campaign money is having to make a national ad buy on Fox News in the middle of summer 2015. What are his other options? He could play with power tools like another oxygen-deprived candidate, Rand Paul, has been doing. He could subject himself to embarrassing questions with any media outlet who’ll take him, like Rick Santorum. He could deploy the famous campaign move of pretending to stop campaigning, as Bobby Jindal has done. He could pick a fight with Donald Trump, or make a point of not picking a fight with Donald Trump.
Live television at its most riveting.
Even inside Fox, some are awed that a presidential race is being influenced by a television channel. “Crazy stuff,” another personality told me, “you have a TV executive deciding who is in — and out — of a debate!”
A train wreck, crashing into a 17-car freeway pileup. I hope we have plenty of snacks.