Conor Friedersdorf suggests that we give Fox News too much credit:
Yes, among a certain demographic, Fox News is a huge ratings success. So is Rush Limbaugh. But where is the evidence that this rating success has translated into electoral victories or a friendlier policy environment for conservatives? There is none.
This is true as far as it goes. The actual number of people who watch Fox is relatively small. But I think it misses the bigger picture.
First, Fox has agenda setting power. When they — along with Rush/Drudge/etc. — push a topic hard, it goes mainstream. And that affects the political atmosphere dramatically. Last summer I'm sure Democrats would have preferred that we talk about the glories of healthcare reform or the need to create jobs. Instead we were talking about the New Black Panthers, the Ground Zero mosque, anchor babies, and other conservative hot buttons. You can largely thank Fox for that.
Second, Fox's main influence, I'd say, isn't to win elections for Republicans or to influence who wins Republican primaries. It's to push the entire Republican Party further to the right. Fox certainly hasn't done this by itself, but there's really not much doubt that it's had a huge influence on this project over the past decade of its existence.
My guess is that Fox has very modest persuasive power. It has a bit just by virtue of its agenda setting power, but that's about it. After all, its viewers are already conservative. But that said, the power to push Republicans to the right is a huge one. Not only does this act indirectly to push the entire country to the right, but it also makes it nearly impossible for liberals to pass compromise legislation. That's why the next dozen years or so are going to be grim ones for liberals. We're not going to get 60 votes in the Senate again for a long time, and in the era of Fox News Republicans just flatly won't work together on anything that isn't a hard right priority. I figure that it's 2024 at the earliest before liberals will get anything big done again, and Fox can take a lot of credit for that. Looking narrowly at their viewership misses their real influence.
UPDATE: Here's a paper suggesting the the power of Fox is actually more direct than either Conor or I gave it credit for. The authors measured voting behavior between 1996 and 2000 in towns where Fox News was introduced vs. towns where it wasn't introduced:
We ﬁnd a signiﬁcant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000. Republicans gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns that broadcast Fox News. Fox News also affected voter turnout and the Republican vote share in the Senate. Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure. The Fox News effect could be a temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for nonrational voters subject to persuasion.
Thanks to Philip Klinkner for the pointer.