Whether to appear on the nation's top-rated cable news channel has become an unlikely marker for the divergent strategies top Democrats vying for the White House are employing. They are seeking to deny a second term to one of Fox News Channel's most avid viewers, President Donald Trump.
It's forcing them to weigh the possibility of extended airtime in front of conservative audiences who could be impressed against possibly alienating some of their own party's primary voters, who don't want to encourage what they see as the network's overly sympathetic relationship to the Trump administration and other Republican causes.
And how they choose can sometimes say more about the candidates than anything they actually say — or don't — on Fox News Channel. "It is very tough to win an American election and concede blue-collar, middle-class votes. And they don't watch MSNBC," said Rory McShane, a Las Vegas-based Republican strategist, referring to the cable network whose star commentators are left-of-center. "They watch Fox News."
Complicating matters is the Democratic National Committee's decision in March to bar Fox News from hosting one of the party's 2020 presidential primary debates, with DNC Chairman Tom Perez saying the network isn't "fair and neutral enough" to do so.
Still, enough Democrats have refused to shun the network that even Trump has taken notice. "What's going on with Fox, by the way? What's going on there? They're putting more Democrats on than you have Republicans," Trump said Monday at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. "Something strange is going on at Fox, folks."
Sanders, a senator from Vermont, drew his largest TV town hall audience of the primary season when he appeared on Fox News last month. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar did her own town hall on the channel and is a frequent Fox News guest, saying it boosts her credentials with voters from both parties. Kirsten Gillibrand will have a Fox News town hall on June 2, which her campaign says reinforces the New York senator's "taking on the tough fights and winning in red and purple places."
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro all say they'd be willing to do similar town halls, though a Fox News spokeswoman declined to comment on ongoing conversations about possible town halls with any candidates.
In declining her own town hall invitation, Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, tweeted, "Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists — it's designed to turn us against each other, risking life and death consequences."
Sen. Kamala Harris of California also isn't interested in doing a Fox News town hall. And others have faced backlash for not flatly refusing to do one. "I understand the short-term incentives for Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg to appear on Fox News, but putting an imprimatur of legitimacy on one of the most destructive forces in American politics has long-term consequences," Dan Pfeiffer, once a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted last month.
But Warren's decision was panned by Whoopi Goldberg, co-host of ABC's "The View," a program where Democratic presidential hopefuls have lined up to appear for its large, presumably bipartisan, daytime viewership.
"If you can't face a Fox audience, you can't face the U.S.," Goldberg said. "It's that simple." Joe Brettell, a Texas-based public relations consultant and media strategist, said "both Harris and Warren were playing to the crowd to a certain extent."
"But the reality of it is, the rule of thumb for any candidate in this day and age should be to actively and genuinely engage with the media to drive their message," Brettell said. "Because the half-life of a memorable quip or a solid quote or a good moment is endlessly reverberated on social media."
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, acknowledged Democrats' Fox News divide during Sunday's appearance, which drew an average of 1.1 million viewers, saying, "A lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this."
He added, "I get where that's coming from," then blasted network personalities Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham for their views on immigration. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade bristled at that, saying Monday on-air, "Don't hop on our channel and continue to put down the other hosts on the channel, or the channel."
"If you feel that negative about it, don't come," Kilmeade said. Trump himself complained that the mayor had appeared on the network "knocking the hell out of Fox." Buttigieg fundraised off his decision to appear, writing in an email to supporters, "If we ignore the viewers of Fox News and every news platform that doesn't share our worldview, we will surrender our ability to speak directly to millions of American voters."
McShane, the GOP consultant, said he agrees with that sentiment — if not most of the rest of what Democratic presidential hopefuls say. "You can be Elizabeth Warren and rally all the Zabar's-eating, Starbucks-drinking, associate professors," he said of food chains based in New York and Seattle. "But most of the rest of the country thinks those people are whack-a-doo."