Give Fox News credit: The network started by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes two decades ago might be a cynical, bigotry-spewing propaganda mill, but it sure knows how to program an evening of election coverage. In 2008, Fox greeted Obama’s election with strong analysis and a surprising lack of sour grapes. In 2012, Megyn Kelly and company had the best coverage on the air, culminating in a night that would become legendary when Kelly forcefully shut down a deluded Karl Rove, who was certain that a defeated Mitt Romney could actually still win.
Monday night was an exception to this trend. This primary season has thus far been a challenge for Fox News. Kelly found herself in a nasty feud with Donald Trump; Trump has been unrelenting in his criticism of the network, on Twitter and elsewhere; and the network has seemed confused—after an initial attempt to bring Trump down—about exactly what to do about him. On Monday, Fox found itself fighting old, petty battles, and still uncertain of how to cover a diverse and divided Republican field. The network’s seeming solution: Spend the better part of the night crowing that Donald Trump’s disappointing finish could only be the result of him skipping Fox’s debate, and pretty much ignoring the winner of the contest at hand, Ted Cruz.
When Monday night’s coverage began, Fox played down Trump’s entrance poll lead. (It seemed initially that Trump would win.) As the evening developed, there were hints from Fox contributors like Charles Krauthammer that “late deciders” didn’t go for Trump because he had skipped the debate. The debate theory quickly turned from a postulate to an obsession, with commentator after commentator mentioning the snub. With 99 percent of the vote in, Kelly declared herself as yet still unable to call the race. Biding her time, she checked in with Marco Rubio. “He showed up at the GOP debate,” she noted. Bret Baier followed the interview up by asking a contributor whether the debate was responsible for Trump’s loss.
Of course, it’s possible that skipping the debate really did cost Trump, though it was odd to watch a news network, even this one, cover the first exercise in actual voting in this campaign in such a solipsistic manner. But Trump’s disappointing finish tonight offers the network a clearer playbook going forward. It was striking how little attention Fox paid to Cruz on Monday. Instead, what little passion its anchors mustered went into boosting Rubio, who finished a relatively close third place. The network seems poised to embrace Rubio sooner rather than later, even if the primary process isn’t quite there yet. For now, however, Fox seems content to gloat that after losing last week’s debate battle, signs are pointing to the network winning the war.