How Barack Obama used a Fox News interview to help him win the 2008 Democratic primary

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren has announced she won’t be doing a Fox News town hall. This is being read by some as a political counter to Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who did do one (to strong reviews).

A portion of the Democratic Party’s base strongly dislikes Fox News due to its conservative leanings, so the play would be to assert herself as a stronger partisan than Sanders.

Whether someone wants to isolate themselves from the most popular cable TV news channel is probably an inside-baseball question among liberals — and not a super interesting one. Fox News exists, is quite influential, and many liberals and Democrats will continue to appear on it for that reason. Sanders’s strong performance probably has his camp sitting strong thinking it was the right move, to expose the Fox audience to ideas they rarely see defended.

However it is interesting to think about the political dynamics of the Fox play. Warren is probably betting this will excite a portion of  partisan Democratic voters (the kind who would never watch a conservative network) and help her differentiate herself from Sanders. (She did appear on Fox News last year, but it wasn’t for a full town hall, rather a Sunday show.)

But it’s worth recalling that in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama took the road Sanders did, using the channel to appeal to more conservative voters.

This is how NPR described an April 2008 decision for Obama to appear on Fox News Sunday during his close primary campaign with Senator Hillary Clinton:

Barack Obama refused to appear on TV’s “Fox News Sunday” for more than two years. Now he’s trying to win over blue collar and socially conservative voters. They’re key in the two states that vote next week – North Carolina and Indiana. So today, finally, he sat down with Fox’s Chris Wallace.

During the interview, Obama stressed his wins in states like Idaho and Colorado, stressing the fact that despite recent Clinton wins in states like Ohio, he had more support among the white working class than the Clinton campaign was portraying. He also faced certain issues head on, like incendiary language from his former pastor the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Obama understood that Fox News’s viewer base is actually more diverse than one might imagine; about half of its viewers are people other than conservative Republicans. “Fox is substantially better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans,” one study of its viewership found.

Obama then went on to narrowly lose Indiana to Clinton while winning North Carolina. In other words, it was a net win.

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