In a crucial period with the midterms less than a month away, some in the White House are worried that the president is losing a megaphone to his base.
President Donald Trump loves to brag about ratings, but he’s not getting them anymore.
As he’s ramped up his rally schedule ahead of the midterms, viewership numbers for the raucous prime-time events have been roughly similar to — sometimes dipping below — Fox News’ regular programming, and the network has recently stopped airing most evening events in full.
During three Trump rallies last week, Fox News showed clips and highlights from his speeches but stuck largely with its normal weekday prime-time programming. On Saturday, when “Fox Report Weekend” and “Justice with Judge Jeanine” would ordinarily air, the network showed Trump’s speech from Topeka, Kan., in full. But on Tuesday, a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was particularly hard to find — it was not aired live on any major network, and even C-SPAN cut away for other news. And on Wednesday night, as Trump took the stage in Erie, Pa., at 7 p.m., Fox News stuck with its coverage of Hurricane Michael.
Since Trump took office, CNN and MSNBC have mostly declined to air his campaign rallies, though, like Fox News, they’ll typically carry any presidential speeches or comments to reporters.
Fox still provides livestreams of the campaign events online, but during a crucial period, with the midterms less than a month away, some in the White House are worried that the president is losing a prime-time megaphone to his base.
One senior White House official was unsure why the network would decide to cut away from presidential rallies, saying officials planned “to look into that” and wouldn’t be surprised if White House communications director Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive, was in touch with former colleagues about the trend.
The loss of national coverage is equally, if not more, concerning to the candidates on whose behalf Trump is traveling the country.
“It exposes us to a national audience that we normally don’t get to,” a Senate Republican campaign staffer said of the coverage of Trump rallies. “We tend to see lots of new sign-ups and small-dollar donations. There’s obviously folks streaming [rallies] online, but being able to be onstage with the president in front of a prime-time audience is huge for a campaign trying to reach conservatives across the country who will open up their wallets.”
A source close to Trump described the declining coverage as a “huge loss on the state and local level for Republicans because they’re certainly not going to get any of that on other cable networks.”
“If they stop taking them completely, that might create a problem,” this person said. “Trump is a massive consumer of the media, so he may be disappointed.”
Neither Fox News nor the White House responded to requests for comment.
But from Fox’s perspective, Trump is no longer a sure bet to beat Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham. For instance, on Aug. 30, Fox News’ 8 p.m. hour was mostly consumed by Trump’s rally in Evansville, Ind., earning 2.536 million viewers, according to Nielsen, compared to the 2.8 million viewers Carlson averaged at that time during 2018’s third quarter.
In 2017, when Trump rallied much less frequently, his events at times popped for more than 4 million viewers on Fox News — a number he hasn’t come close to in 2018, according to a POLITICO assessment of Nielsen ratings. This year, numbers have typically ranged from 2.5 to 3.5 million, per Nielsen, depending on a variety of factors, including day, time and whether there’s something big on another channel.
The biggest change is the sheer number of rallies. With so many, “they don’t want to give up so much prime-time real estate,” said one person familiar with Fox News’ decision making.
Trump’s campaign speeches tend to follow a similar pattern, and this person said network officials’ fear was that too much repetition would lead to lower ratings. That could particularly be a problem during a busy news period like the first week of October, when Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination was still up in the air.
“They’re going with the route they think will give the best ratings performance,” the person said.
Compounding the issue, Fox News can’t take commercial breaks while Trump is speaking — he often goes on for more than an hour — costing the network some of its best advertising slots. With so many rallies and little promise of a ratings boost, there’s not much incentive for the network to clear air time.
It can also be frustrating to plan an hourlong show knowing each block might be swapped for a standard presidential stump speech, said former Fox News host Eric Bolling, who left the network in September 2017 but whose program was often interrupted by rally coverage during his tenure.
Not too long ago, the president’s preferred network was taking jabs at competitors for declining to air the entirety of his remarks. “Trump rally live & only on Fox News, other networks ignore presidential rally,” read a chyron during a June appearance by Trump in Duluth, Minn., as CNN and MSNBC stuck to their standard shows. At least four more times between June and July, Fox News traded its prime-time lineup for live coverage of the president’s rallies when other cable news networks chose alternative programming.
But Trump has increased his campaign travel considerably in the final weeks before the midterm elections, leaving Fox News to decide between wall-to-wall coverage of his rallies or more selective airtime for the president. One GOP campaign operative said nightly rallies aired live and in full would probably subject Fox News to even greater scrutiny. The channel has often been described as a “propaganda machine” by Trump’s political opponents, many of whom claim its coverage of his administration has at times been sycophantic.
“If every night Trump does a rally, a station carries it, you just become the president’s station,” the GOP operative said.
The president hasn’t faulted the network so far for recent changes to its programming. At his Tuesday-night rally in Iowa — which wasn’t aired — he heaped praise on his “great friends” at Fox News.
“We got a lot of good people. Do we like Tucker?” he asked the crowd. “I like Tucker.”