The emergence of the Fox News Channel in the late 1990s boosted electoral competition for some Democratic incumbents, according to new research published in the American Journal of Political Science.

The findings indicate that the entrance of Fox News into a congressional district was associated with altered expectations for electoral success among Republicans, which in turn made them more likely to challenge vulnerable Democrats.

“A substantial amount of research has looked at how news media influence voters, but little work has been dedicated to studying how they affect the behavior of elected officials,” explained study author Ryan J. Vander Wielen, a professor at Temple University.

“Fox News is a particularly interesting case to study since it was the first partisan cable news network and it rolled out in a fashion that was essentially random, meaning that researchers can study the effects of access to Fox News as a natural experiment.”

“We found in an earlier study of voting behavior in the U.S. House of Representatives that Fox News caused members of Congress to increase their support for Republican policies, especially Democrats serving in Republican-leaning districts as elections approach.”

“The question that remained from this study was why members of Congress would respond to the emergence of a national news network in this way. Therefore, we decided to examine how Fox News influenced congressional elections by way of affecting the decisions that potential candidates made regarding whether and when to challenge a sitting incumbent.”

The researchers examined elections data from U.S. House races between 1998 and 2010, a timeframe that coincides with the incremental rollout of the Fox News Channel. They created a yearly measure of Fox News penetration in every congressional district using data from the media tracking firm Nielsen.

Vander Wielen and his colleagues found that the availability of Fox News increased the likelihood that Democratic incumbents in weakly-held districts faced quality Republican challengers. But the availability of Fox News did not increase the likelihood that Republican incumbents faced quality Democratic challengers.

“Much of the action in congressional elections depends on whether an incumbent faces a highly qualified competitor. The lack of highly qualified challengers (to incumbents) in most congressional races helps to explain the high reelection rates of incumbents and the lop-sided nature of most congressional elections,” Vander Wielen explained.

“Highly qualified candidates are extremely calculated in their decisions about when to run, and therefore they tend to challenge an incumbent only when they believe that the incumbent is vulnerable, otherwise they’ll wait until the incumbent vacates her/his seat. Relatedly, incumbents behave in strategic ways to ward off challenges from highly qualified candidates.”

“Highly qualified candidates base their decisions about when to run on a variety of factors, including their assessment of the partisan lean of the district within which they wish to run,” Vander Wielen told PsyPost.

“We find that Fox News substantially influenced highly qualified Republican candidates’ perceptions regarding the partisan leanings of the districts, leading them to challenge Democratic incumbents in situations that they likely would not have without Fox News present in the district. Importantly, this tells us that political elites are influenced by the media, and changes in the media landscape can ultimately affect the output of public policy.”

But the researchers also came across an unexpected finding: the availability of Fox News was associated with a reduced likelihood that Democratic incumbents in strongly-held districts faced quality Republican challengers.

“A number of questions still remain, which we are currently pursuing in a book project. A particularly interesting question is how Fox News distorted the perceptions of highly qualified potential candidates. Secondary analysis finds that Fox News did not, in fact, increase the success rates of highly qualified challengers who decided to run, and so it would seem that the Fox News effect we find is a purely perceptual one,” Vander Wielen said.

“Therefore, it would be of particular interest to better understand whether Fox News directly affected the perceptions of potential candidates, by way of their own consumption, or did so in a more indirect way by changing the behaviors of those who might encourage their entry (e.g., constituents, party leaders, etc.). Moreover, we would further like to understand what types of messages have the greatest influence on these perceptions.”

Previous research has found that voters have a higher probability of voting Republican in presidential elections when they live in zip codes where Fox News has a low channel position. This is likely related to the fact that cable viewers tend to spend a bit more time watching stations with a lower channel number.

“The effects of the news media are widespread. We have long understood the news media’s influence on the voting public,” Vander Wielen said. But the latest research “also suggests just how consequential they are for political elites as well.”

“This is a complicated story, since freedom of the press is so intrinsically woven into the fabric of our nation, but this and other related studies should nevertheless encourage us to think seriously about how the news media affect our political lives, from the public policy produced to our political discourse.”

The study, “Strategic Candidate Entry and Congressional Elections in the Era of Fox News“, was authored by Kevin Arceneaux, Johanna Dunaway, Martin Johnson, and Ryan J. Vander Wielen.