A Fox News ad promoting the candidates who will participate in the first debate of the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest — a hosted by the channel — offered a simple pitch: Here was the viewers’ chance to gain a first impression of the eight candidates!
This is just a marketing pitch, obviously. But it’s one that carries an unintentional truth. Fox News viewers haven’t been presented with much information about those eight candidates because the channel’s coverage has so overwhelmingly focused on the debate’s ninth qualifying candidate, the one who said he isn’t planning to show up for the program.
Former president Donald Trump.
There are obviously very good reasons for Fox News to talk about Trump more often than, say, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — my preferred example of a qualifying candidate about whom almost no American has much of an established opinion. Trump was president and then tried very hard to not not be president, with the effect that he has now been indicted multiple times this year. There was no real reason for a national media outlet to talk about Burgum signing a bill funding snow removal on April 4 when Trump was in New York being arraigned on criminal charges.
That said, the gap in coverage between Trump and the eight candidates who will be featured in Fox News’s debate is stark.
We can measure that coverage by considering the number of 15-second segments in a given Fox News day in which a candidate was mentioned in closed-captioning — an unusual but useful bit of data compiled by the Internet Archive. Since Jan. 1, “Trump” has been mentioned in more than 47,000 such segments. This might include mentions of Eric Trump or Donald Trump Jr., but it’s very safe to assume that such mentions make up only a small part of the total. Eric Trump, for example, has been mentioned in 195 segments this year.
Doug Burgum has been mentioned in 196.
The next-closest contender on the Fox News mention index is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s been mentioned in about 12,000 segments. No one else has more than 2,500.
In fact, there’s a correlation between the number of mentions in segments on Fox News and where candidates sit in the polls. One thousand mentions is generally equal to a bit over 1 percentage point in the polls. The outlier here is businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who is getting relatively few mentions for his third-place position in FiveThirtyEight’s average.
The scale of frequency in which Trump is mentioned tends to make it harder to pick out patterns among the other candidates. If we use a logarithmic scale, that becomes easier. We see, for example, that DeSantis’s sole period in which he was consistently seeing over 100 mentions a day came around the time of his campaign launch. Former vice president Mike Pence has been mentioned in sporadic bursts, often because he’s looped into news about Trump and his indictments.
You can also see how Fox News has been playing catch-up on Ramaswamy.
But even in that skewed presentation, Trump dominates. In fact, on only 29 of the 233 days of 2023 (as of Monday) have the eight people who will be participating in the first debate had more mentions than Trump — in the cumulative.
On just six days, another candidate individually had more mentions. Two came when former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley announced her candidacy. Three came when DeSantis announced his.
On average, Trump has been mentioned in 109 more 15-second segments on any given day this year than the total number from his opponents. And that counts each individual mention, so a 15-second segment mentioning both Haley and DeSantis would count twice.
No wonder Fox News thinks that viewers could use an introduction to Trump’s competition.