David Frum

04.16.12

Those "Independents" Watching Fox Are True Believers

Mitt Romney has reportedly told an audience of donors that in the general election, the campaign will need to reach beyond the conservative base. The Wall Street Journal reports:

"Fox is watched by the true believers," Mr. Romney said. "We need to get the independents and the women."

Byron York thinks Romney is making a mistake because Fox News is watched by more independents than CNN, therefore Romney is actually reaching a wider and more diverse audience just by appearing on Fox. York has his numbers right but I think he is not being accurate about who "independents" are. One of the most important features of modern American politics is that many so-called "independents" are more conservative than many Republicans.

Here is York, making the case for Fox New's audience by citing a Pew study:

A few years ago, Pew Research did a survey of the partisan makeup of television news audiences and found that, while a lot of Republicans do watch Fox, so do a lot of Democrats and independents. "Democrats comprise a larger share of the Fox News audience than Republicans do of CNN's audience," Pew reported.

Pew found that 39 percent of regular Fox watchers are Republicans, while 33 percent are Democrats. For CNN, Pew found that 51 percent of viewers are Democrats, while just 18 percent are Republicans. According to Pew, 22 percent of Fox's audience, and 23 percent of CNN's, are independents.

Given the differences in audience size —Fox's audience is far, far larger than CNN's—Romney would certainly reach more independents, and perhaps even more Democrats, on Fox than he would on CNN.

The problem is that further polling has shown (including polling by Pew) that these self-described "Independents" are actually very conservative. Jonathan Rauch wrote a piece for National Journal on this phenomenon which has since been put behind a paywall, but you can read part of it here:

Far from being wishy-washy, in 1997 Republican-leaning independents were about as skeptical of government as were Republicans. In 2010, they became, if anything, even more conservative. Today, your average Republican-leaning independent is at least as anti-government as your average Republican. Why? Probably because self-identified Republicans include moderates and even a sprinkling of liberals. Republican-leaners seem to be less diverse ideologically. They look like not just Republicans in exile; they look like conservative Republicans in exile. The seepage of Republican debranding has been from the right edge of the party.

From the same blog post:

Within the category of “independents,” the fastest growing group are conservative independents, conservative non-Republicans. Conservative independents now make up 12% of the electorate. These are the people to whom the tea party most strongly appeals.

Romney might indeed reach more self-described "independents", but he shouldn't be admonished for recognizing that those independents are largely conservative already.