From White House Press Secretary to Election 2016 Breakout
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this analyst could be one of the big winners of this election cycle.
By Nick Fouriezos
Dana Perino hasn’t always been the most popular person in the room. Back in August, as her co-host on The Five Eric Bolling claimed the polls were skewed because they didn’t account for the enthusiasm of Donald Trump’s rallies, Perino rebutted by pointing out that many conservatives were fooled by similar logic that Mitt Romney would win in 2012. Her insistence that the polls weren’t wrong earned her enemies online, and fellow Fox News hand Bill O’Reilly asked if she was showing bias rooted in her time as George W. Bush’s press secretary. “A lot of Republicans just expect me to be a cheerleader for the candidate,” Perino told O’Reilly. Later, she added, “I don’t think it’s right to tell people that we are going to win this.”
She ended up being wrong, of course, as the world watched Donald Trump barnstorm his way to the presidency – in many ways by breaking the polls she was trusting. But Perino’s commitment to telling hard facts has made her one of the winners in this gritty election cycle, even if she isn’t always well-liked. Now eight years removed from her days as the Bush administration’s mouthpiece, Perino has found her own voice — and TV ratings show the people dig it. Her audience for The Five is up 13 percent in total viewership — and over 30 percent in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic — from about a year ago, according to Nielsen Research, and her show has been the top program in its time slot since Perino joined when it began in 2011. Just this fall, Perino was given her first Sunday show with co-host Chris Stirewalt, Perino & Stirewalt: I’ll Tell You What, after the podcast of the same name scaled the top 10 of the News & Politics iTunes charts at one point. “There aren’t a lot of people in Fox News with the wings to move up to prime time, but she’s one of them,” says political scientist Dan Cassino, author of Fox News & American Politics: How One Channel Shapes American Politics & Society.
Perino’s rise coincides with a new air of nonconformity that’s infiltrated Fox News and at a time when the network is no longer driven by the embattled former CEO Roger Ailes. Free to no longer toe the company line set in part by Ailes, some hosts are stretching boundaries and becoming famous for it — most notably Megyn Kelly, who, like Perino, has been critical of Trump at times. Yet Perino, in particular, seems to have thrived when given flexibility. She’s a best-selling author of the autobiography And the Good News Is…, built a Twitter following for her dog (Jasper, also known as “America’s Dog”) and even worked simultaneously as a Random House publishing exec at the start of her Fox News career. Over a salad and a glass of water at a greasy spoon known by Fox staffers for its famous grilled cheese, Perino describes her relationship with Kelly as that of “close friends” and “admiring colleagues” — it was Kelly who originally paired Perino with Stirewalt (“a beauty-and-beast combo for the ages,” Stirewalt chimes).
Kelly and Perino became on-air regulars around the same time — Kelly in 2010 with America Live, and Perino a year later withThe Five — though it’s Kelly the network has chosen to promote more aggressively and back with a prime-time show and who’s currently negotiating what reportedly looks like a $20 million-a-year contract. “It’s possible that if Megyn Kelly were to move, Dana Perino could step in,” says Cassino, but otherwise, there’s no clear path to prime time for Perino. Indeed, Perino’s Sunday show with Stirewalt ends after the election, though she’ll still have The Five. She’s underutilized as one of five hosts, says Cassino, who adds that, for such a talent, “that’s a little disappointing.” (Perino says she already has her favorite job, while a spokesperson pointed to The Five’s strong ratings and her frequent guest appearances across the network’s other marquee shows.)
Learning to give her own opinion, and not Dubya’s, was “like walking on a tightrope without a net,” Perino says.
Away from the set, Perino’s television poise gives way to a more casual, tumbleweed style of speaking. Her words spill over her 5-foot frame as she tells her path-to-politics story, which began in rural Wyoming and suburban Denver, watching Sunday shows with her family and hoping to be a television journalist, but falling into a Capitol Hill comms job instead. Her days in the White House were during Bush’s tumultuous final couple of years. Learning to give her own opinion, and not Dubya’s, was “like walking on a tightrope without a net,” Perino says.
The reformed (self-admitted) worrywart now has a Zen-like quality to her, and she tries to follow the counsel she often gives young female conservatives: “Do not be in such a hurry.” And the rise of Trump, ironically, has helped Perino advance her case as a serious commentator. Given her past, becoming a “dispassionate observer,” as Stirewalt puts it, took time, but she’s finally had that distance to become an analyst with less skin in the game — and, now, she doesn’t have a clear dog in the presidential race. It also helps that she does her homework. Each day, a stack of election updates arrives at her door, which she reads after waking around 6 a.m. Before each show, she spends about an hour flipping through segment scripts, penning margin notes with a black Sharpie.
Back on set, you can see Perino drawing on her expertise in various ways — whether it’s while commenting on the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails, by citing her own time at the Justice Department or providing insight on Obama press secretary Josh Earnest’s most recent comments. During one recent commercial break, she showed off her range in other ways — by leaning over to show Bolling how to use his new iPhone. Porter Berry, the executive producer of both The Five and Hannity, says Perino has the same qualities that have made Sean Hannity famous on this network: “She’s true to herself, a person of conviction, knows her stuff,” Berry says, “and the audience loves her.”