NEW YORK — Iowa and New Hampshire are still on the horizon — but first there's the Fox primary, and the buildup to this week's first Republican presidential debate shows that the influence of Fox News Channel on the GOP selection process is stronger than ever.
The musical chairs-like rules for participation in Thursday's televised debate required candidates to reach a certain threshold in opinion polls, making national exposure to an interested audience vital at a stage in the campaign when candidates are usually shaking hands in early primary states. And where better to find that audience than on Fox News Channel?
The 17 candidates —only 10 of whom are invited to the prime-time debate — made a total of 273 separate appearances on Fox News in May, June and July, according to a count by liberal-leaning group Media Matters for America. Six hopefuls — Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry — have appeared 20 times or more each on Fox or Fox Business Channel, the network said. Besides interviews, candidates have joined the panel of talk shows like "Outnumbered" or "The Five."
"It is the most important forum for a Republican running for president," said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and now an ABC News analyst.
Fox announced Tuesday afternoon that Trump, Paul, Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Chris Christie were included in the prime-time debate. The remaining candidates will be in a secondary forum that starts four hours earlier.
Trump, who is leading in the polls, leads in time spent on Fox (just under five hours, Media Matters said). Sean Hannity's prime-time show, which hosted Trump, Cruz and Christie one night last week, has offered the candidates twice as much airtime as any other individual show, Media Matters said.
Part of the draw for candidates is the size of Fox's audience: second only to shark-obsessed Discovery among cable networks in July and typically larger than that of CNN and MSNBC combined in prime time. And there's the guarantee of finding like-minded voters; 47 percent of voters who described themselves as "consistently conservative" said Fox was their main source of news about government and politics, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center.
Of the people who watch Hannity's show, 78 percent described themselves as conservative, according a 2012 Pew study. Sixty-five percent identified as Republican and 6 percent as Democrats.
"With the number of candidates we have, the gatekeeper becomes more powerful," Dowd said. "If there were only three or four candidates running, the power would be less."
That's evident in the amount of attention paid to the rules for Thursday's debate. With the largest field of contenders in modern memory, Fox said that setting a cap on the size of the prime-time debate was necessary for a coherent event, yet some experts believe a failure to be included in the first tier could itself deal a death blow to a candidacy. Republican pollster Frank Luntz told the AP last month that "if you're not on that stage, you're irrelevant, you don't matter."
CNN's Sept. 16 debate will also have two separate tiers, although the two forums will run back-to-back. The network hasn't yet specified how many candidates will be in each.
Fox said that it determined participation by averaging the results of the five most recent national opinion polls done by nationally recognized organizations, not affiliated with a party or a candidate. Since the network didn't specify in advance the polls that it would be using, that led to grumbling that was encapsulated by Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." ''Basically, they're going to look at the polls and (Fox News Chairman) Roger Ailes is going to pick whoever he wants," Stewart said.
The network announced Tuesday that its decision was based on a combination of polls from CBS, Fox, Bloomberg News and Monmouth and Quinnipiac universities.
"Common sense would tell you that there is no formal schedule for who releases polls and when," said Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president of news. "And fairness would tell you that we can't judge any poll until you can see the methodology."
Still, some resentment seemed apparent Monday night at a forum in New Hampshire, when Fiorina thanked the hosts for "reminding the political class that we don't have a national primary and managing to get all of the candidates here."
Although Fox's dominance in viewership is unchallenged — July marked its 163rd straight month atop the prime-time cable news ratings — this early stage of the campaign hasn't necessarily been a boon to the network. Fox's full-day viewership in July was down 4 percent from July 2014, the Nielsen company said. CNN was up 6 percent and MSNBC, where Rachel Maddow has done segments critical of Fox's impact on the GOP candidate selection process, was up 17 percent, Nielsen said.