One simple question may be the most reliable predictor of the strength of a conservative person’s political views in this hotly contested election year. That question: Do you trust Fox News?
From religion to immigration to race to the economy and the president’s approval rating, the most notable distinction across all categories of Public Religion Research Institute’s recent report, “State of the Union: A House Divided and Fragile,” is how a respondent answers this one question.
This correlates with a 2017 study in the American Economic Review and reported on Vox: “Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimate that watching Fox News directly causes a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ attitudes, which translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.”
That was confirmed again the next year in a study by the group Data for Progress that found that “across a variety of political and cultural attitudes, Republicans who report getting their news from Fox are significantly to the right of Republicans who don’t.” The authors dubbed this the “Fox News Bubble.”
PRRI may not be the first polling firm to ask about the influence of Fox News, but the new data set is likely one of the most comprehensive analyses of the Fox News effect. Its throughgoing scope illustrates again and again the gaps between the views of Republicans in general and Republicans who rely on Fox News in particular.
‘A party within a party’
“Right now, what you essentially have is a party within a party that is organized around its allegiance to Fox News, and to this president,” PRRI founder Robert P. Jones said at an Oct. 19 virtual roundtable sponsored by the Brookings Institution.
“What you essentially have is a party within a party that is organized around its allegiance to Fox News.”
Despite the liberal assumption that all Republicans are swayed by Fox News, the PRRI data found about 40% of Republicans say they trust Fox News more than any other news source. That is the “party within the party.”
Among those Fox News aficionados, double-digit gaps appear on almost all issues compared to Republicans as a group — and the gap between Fox News viewers and non-Republicans often is deep and wide.
At the roundtable, Jones noted that Fox News had been galvanizing this party within a party before Trump was elected president. However, this subgroup has become his most loyal base and the most loyal adherents to the controversial policies that have defined his administration.
For example, on the question, “Will climate change cause you harm?” Democrats (76%) and independents (61%) are more likely than Republicans (31%) to believe this. Only 18% of Republicans who trust Fox News believe climate change will cause them harm, compared to 39% of Republicans who most trust other news sources — meaning Fox News loyalty doubles the likelihood of Republicans not believing climate change will cause them harm.
Only 18% of Republicans who trust Fox News believe climate change will cause them harm.
The largest gap among Republicans concerns approval of the job Trump is doing in office. Nearly all Republicans who report trusting Fox News most (97%) approve of Trump’s performance, including 82% who strongly approve. Among all other Republicans, 78% approve of the president and 42% strongly approve — a 40-point gap on the strongly approve group.
Among other examples of this Fox News-induced chasm:
Is the country moving in the right direction under Trump’s current leadership? Only 10% of Democrats say yes, while 66% of Republicans say yes. Republicans who say they trust Fox News overwhelmingly believe the country is going in the right direction (79%), compared to 58% of Republicans who trust other news sources — a 21-point gap.
Will voting by mail be as secure as voting in person? Nationally, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to say they are not confident at all that voting by mail will be as secure as voting in person (56% versus 25%). Republicans who say they most trust Fox News are especially distrustful of voting by mail, with 73% saying so, compared to 44% of Republicans who trust any other news source — a 29-point gap.
Should the popular vote determine the winner of presidential elections? Not surprisingly, 86% of Democrats say yes, compared to 39% of Republicans. However, only 25% of Republicans who trust Fox News say yes, compared to 48% of Republicans who most trust any other news source — a 23-point gap.
How is the president handling the coronavirus pandemic? Nationally, only 35% of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the pandemic and 65% disapprove. However, while 78% of all Republicans approve of his response to the pandemic, nearly all (94%) Republicans who trust Fox News approve of his pandemic response — a 15-point gap among Republicans and a 59-point gap with the national attitude.
How has the president handled the protests over the summer following the killings of Black Americans by police?Nationally, only 35% approve of Trump’s response and 64% disapprove. Among all Republicans, 78% approve. Once again, Republicans are divided by those who trust Fox News most (93% approve) and those who trust any other source most (68% approve) — a 25-point gap.
Are killings of Black people by police isolated incidents? Most Republicans (79%) believe this, but few Democrats (17%) do. However, being a Republican and trusting Fox News makes it almost certain you will believe this, with 90% saying so.
Republicans are 25 percentage points more likely to agree that protests make the country better when the statement does not mention Black Americans.
Do protests make the country better? The poll asked this question more than one way, both identifying protesters as Black Americans and not identifying protesters as Black Americans. Nationally, Republicans are 25 percentage points more likely to agree that protests make the country better when the statement does not mention Black Americans (49%) than they are when the protesters are specified as Black Americans (24%). Among Republicans who most trust Fox News, this effect grows to 37 percentage points: 47% favor the statement without Black Americans, compared to only 10% who favor the statement when the protesters are identified as Black Americans.
Are white people and Christians experiencing higher levels of discrimination than racial or ethnic minority groups?Among Republicans who trust Fox News most, only 27% say there is a lot of discrimination against Asian people, 34% among Hispanic people or 36% among Black people (36%). However, among these Republicans who trust Fox News most, 58% see a lot of discrimination against white people, and 73% believe there is a lot of discrimination against Christians.
Are immigrants “invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background”? Less than one-third (31%) of all Americans believe this is true, but a majority of Republicans (57%) believe it is true. Two-thirds of Republicans who trust Fox News most (67%) believe immigrants are invading the country, compared to 51% of Republicans who trust another source most. Only 15% of Democrats agree with this assessment.
Two-thirds of Republicans who trust Fox News most (67%) believe immigrants are invading the country.
Do you support or oppose the administration’s family separation policy at the southern border? Majorities of Democrats (91%), independents (79%) and Republicans (53%) oppose the family separation policy, but a majority of Republicans who most trust Fox News (53%) favor this immigration policy, compared to 41% of Republicans who trust any other news source.
Have Trump’s decisions and behavior as president encouraged white supremacist groups? A majority of Americans (57%) say Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups. Overall, only 18% of Republicans agree that he has encouraged these groups, but dig deeper and the disparity behind that number stands out again: 28% of Republicans who trust a non–Fox News source say the president has encouraged white supremacists, compared to only 3% of those who trust Fox News most — a 25-point gap.
Who do you trust for information about the pandemic? Republicans nationally report low levels of trust in any of the sources of information about the pandemic but 40% say they have a lot of trust in the CDC, which is similar to their trust in Trump (39%) on the issue. However, among Republicans, trusting Fox News doubles the likelihood of trusting Trump as a source of information — 26% to 58%.
Similarly, only 23% of all Americans believe shutdowns, mask mandates and other steps taken by state and local governments since the coronavirus pandemic began are unreasonable measures to protect people. But among Republicans, 43% see these actions as unreasonable and among Republicans who trust Fox News, 51% see them as unreasonable.
Could the spread of COVID-19 have been controlled better? Nearly seven in ten Americans (69%) think so, although Republicans (40%) are less likely than Democrats (92%) to think so. Only 22% of Republicans who trust Fox News as their main source of television news believe it could have been controlled better, compared to 51% of Republicans who most trust other news sources — a 29-point gap.
81% of Republicans who trust Fox News believe coronavirus was developed intentionally by scientists in a lab.
Was coronavirus developed intentionally by scientists in a lab? Among all Americans, there’s a 50-49 split on this. However, 71% of Republicans nationally think it was developed in a lab, compared to 34% of Democrats. Once again, trusting Fox News magnifies your belief in this theory, with 81% thinking this is true, compared to 64% of Republicans who trust other news sources — a 17-point spread.
Has Trump damaged the dignity of the presidency? Nationally, 63% of Americans believe he has. That includes 27% of Republicans and 89% of Democrats. But among Republicans who most trust Fox News, only 9% believe Trump has damaged the dignity of the presidency, compared to 38% of Republicans who most trust another news source — a 29-point gap.
One final note: Nationwide, 85% of Republicans and Democrats alike told pollsters they are absolutely certain to vote. But even more Republicans who trust Fox News most for television news (96%) and white evangelical Protestant Republicans (90%) say they are absolutely certain to vote.