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Horowitz: Debate - Biggest Winner FOX; Biggest Loser Trump

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Rob Horowitz

Biggest Winner  FOX News

FOX News emerges as the biggest winner of last week’s Republican Debate, which at 24 million viewers, 7.9 million of whom were in the 25-to-54 age group-- the demographic sweet spot for advertisers--- was the highest rated cable television show in history, besides sports.

Featuring top performances from its new generation star performers, Megyn Kelly, and Brett Baier, along with the venerable Chris Wallace, the debate furthered FOX News Chair Roger Ailes’ strategy of expanding beyond an aging conservative audience to people with more mixed political views and to younger viewers. This same thinking is what was behind Ailes selection of Megyn Kelly for the prime 9:00 PM weekday slot in the evening line up—the time period that was previously occupied by Sean Hannity who was moved to the less critical 10:00 PM time slot. As Ailes, said at the time , Hannity’s show was “segmented,” attracting an overwhelmingly older and conservative audience. 

In the nearly two years, Kelly has occupied the time slot, she has richly rewarded Ailes judgment by scoring top ratings—maintaining Hannity’s  audience,, while attracting a significant number of new viewers.  Ailes called her his ‘breakthrough artist” in a New York Times Magazine feature article.

The tough, but fair questions that the three FOX panelists asked the candidates and the excellent management and production of the debate made it an attractive showcase for the  cable network. FOX News’ ratings success has been mainly built by representing the values and beliefs of the nearly 4-in-10 Americans that self-identify as conservatives who don’t believe that their views are reflected in the mainstream media. But it also undeniable, that in the ability to put on compelling television, FOX is miles ahead of the other two major cable news networks, CNN and MSNBC.

There are already more FOX viewers, than there are CNN and MSNBC viewers combined. FOX News has more than 60% of the cable news audience. This debate--a part of a smart growth strategy--is a demonstration of why they occupy such a commanding position in the cable news marketplace and are likely to maintain it for the foreseeable future.

Biggest Loser: Trump

Curiosity about how Donald Trump, who remains on top in national polls of Republican primary voters, would do in his first debate as a candidate was certainly a major factor in the size of the audience. This provided Trump with a prime opportunity to expand his support by demonstrating he had the depth of knowledge and temperament to be President. By any measure, he failed on both scores and compounded his poor performance with offensive post-debate whining.

Given the tough, but fair treatment that is traditionally accorded front-runners, Trump was asked about his past demeaning comments about women, his business bankruptcies, and his previous support of single payer health care, among other topics.  His answers were unpersuasive to be charitable. For example, when explaining his bankruptcies he said he "used" the laws of our country” and did not even express any empathy for the thousands of people that lost jobs in these failed ventures, while he skated away pretty much unscathed. He also provided no real specifics about how he would accomplish the results he claims he can achieve as President, remaining free of any policy details.

But worse was his demeanor. A bad, but all too typical moment was when Megyn Kelly asked about his demeaning comments about women, Trump attempted to deflect the question in part by going after the questioner saying“ I’ve been nice to you,, "although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that."

Perhaps realizing that he did poorly, Trump escalated his attacks on Kelly after the debate, calling her unprofessional and complaining about his treatment on twitter and in television interviews. Speaking with Don Lemon of CNN on Friday evening, he said that Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her where ever.”  His campaign’s failure to clarify what he meant, caused Trump to be disinvited from this past weekend's Red State conference, an important gathering of movement conservatives.

It also triggered criticism  from some of Trump’s opponents  Governor John Kasich (R_OH)  penetrated  to the heart of the matter: “Everyone deserves respect and dignity, whether they agree with you or not, You don’t tear people down just because they disagree with you or stand up to you or question you.”

None of this means, of course, that Donald Trump’s support is going to evaporate over night or that he is going to leave the race any time soon or ever. This is the all or nothing false formulation one hears on Morning Joe on MSNBC, which has become Trump Occupied Territory, where when watching a focus group of Trump supporters-not undecided Republican primary voters,--  Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and their guests, taking the cues from the hosts ,all embarrassingly gush that the respondents actually have reasons they are supporting him. That may be an all time record for setting a low bar.

It simply means that Donald Trump had a poor debate performance and his misplaced attempts to deflect the blame on the panelists backfired. Over time, the accretion of these moments and his refusal or inability to provide any policy specifics will likely cause his candidacy to lose altitude. I’m a Democrat, but I’ll place at least that much faith in Republican primary voters.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at University of Rhode Island.


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