At the start of his career, not long after he helped Richard Nixon win the 1968 election, Roger Ailes boasted to a reporter that television would one day replace the political party as the most powerful force in American politics. If there is any doubt that the Fox News founder has largely made that prediction come true, it should be erased by the panic that next week’s Fox debate is stoking inside the GOP. In a year that features the largest primary field in modern history — not to mention Donald Trump as a front-runner — campaign strategists worry that Ailes’s debate, which is likely to attract the biggest audience in cable-news history, could define the race more than five months before the first votes are cast.
As everyone knows by now, Fox has said that only 10 of the 17 declared candidates will be allowed onstage for the prime-time debate moderated by Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace at the Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. (The remaining candidates will participate in a one-hour debate at 5 p.m. that is being dubbed by some as the kiddies’ table). Contenders for each event will be selected on August 4 from an average of five national polls chosen by Fox. But which polls the network will use remains an open question and a source of controversy.
The candidates with the most on the line are Rick Perry and John Kasich. As things stand now, both are in contention to land the tenth and final prime-time spot, depending on which polls are averaged. According to sources, advisers for both Kasich and Perry have been calling Fox trying to find out which polls Fox is considering and how they will break a tie. “We don’t know what methodology they’re going to use. We’ve been asking the question and they haven’t shared,” says a Kasich adviser who, like all campaign sources I spoke with, agreed to speak on background for fear of angering Ailes. (Fox spokesperson Irena Briganti did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the absence of a clear answer from the network, advisers for both Kasich and Perry have taken to lobbying Ailes and Fox executives to use polls that put their guy over the line. One person close to the Perry campaign told me that GOP fund-raiser and Ailes friend Georgette Mosbacher recently called Ailes on behalf of the former Texas Governor. Other strategists cautioned that selling Ailes too aggressively could backfire. “Anyone who knows Roger knows that ain’t gonna work,” a longtime operative said.