As Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially bows out of the presidential race and offers his support to former President Trump, his yo-yo approach to the legacy media is fueling questions about whether it had an impact on his now-failed candidacy.
In the final days of his campaign, DeSantis was self-reflective and acknowledged an “error” he made in an interview last week with radio host Hugh Hewitt.
“I came in not really doing as much media. I should have just been blanketing,” DeSantis said. “I should have gone on all the corporate shows. I should have gone on everything. I started doing that as we got into the end of the summer, and we did it. But we had an opportunity, I think, to come out of the gate and do that and reach a much broader folk. Now, I’m everywhere. I mean, I’ll show up wherever.”
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DePauw University journalism professor Jeffrey McCall told Fox News Digital it was a “mistake” for DeSantis to ice out the media, saying he “diminished his own relevance.”
“The curious thing was that there was no need for DeSantis to fear the media exposure,” McCall said. “He is quite good at fending off partisan attacks, and he is clearly smarter than the journalists who would have been questioning him. His potential supporters would have delighted in seeing DeSantis disarm partisan media interviewers with his wit and rational arguments.”
The strategy of avoiding the liberal press didn’t start with his presidential launch. It began in the lead-up to his 2022 reelection bid, which he won by a whopping 20-point margin after squeaking out a victory in 2018 by less than one point. And it didn’t happen in a vacuum.
While his profile was certainly elevated when he was first elected governor, it wasn’t until the COVID pandemic that he truly entered the national spotlight. DeSantis was among the leaders from red states who made headlines for defying lockdown groupthink, prompting members of the media to attack him with names like “DeathSantis” as they praised blue state governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo for their responses. And presumably he was running for president as his popularity with Republicans continued to rise, some in the media as early as 2021 were pushing the notion that electing him would be even “more dangerous” than electing Trump.
What earned him plenty of conservative praise was his combative style with reporters like one with CNN about Florida’s vaccine rollout and another from a local NBC affiliate who referred to parental rights legislation with the liberal activist-peddled name “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
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The media’s hostile treatment towards DeSantis went beyond press conferences. News organizations promoted false narratives about the governor like when CNN and MSNBC heavily boosted fired Florida health official Rebekah Jones’ fake conspiracy theory that the DeSantis administration had altered COVID data to reopen the state. Or when CBS’ “60 Minutes” infamously accused DeSantis of a pay-for-play scheme.
Members of DeSantis’ team would often retaliate by either leaking email exchanges from liberal journalists exposing overt biases or preemptively responding to what they called “hit pieces” being written about him.
‘Cut them off’
Eventually, it reached a boiling point with Team DeSantis, which implemented a media strategy in 2022 that was ultimately carried into DeSantis’ presidential bid: “cut them off.”
“Treat them like activists because that’s what they are… You’re on a campaign helping a Republican candidate get elected, would you allow a Democrat tracker that you recognize into a private campaign event? I would hope not. That’s how you should view mainstream media activists…. They are not there to report fairly on you,” DeSantis aide Christina Pushaw explained back in September 2022. “They need access or else if they have no access to any conservatives, any Republican elected officials, then they are seen by everybody as what they are, which is Democratic Party communication operators and activists. So you do not have to grant them access.”
The newly-implemented strategy led to liberal reporters being shut out of DeSantis campaign events. Whether it was the correct strategy at the time will remain a mystery, but was not a mystery was the resounding victory DeSantis achieved in the 2022 midterm election that was broadly disappointing for Republicans nationwide.
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Failure to launch
Fresh off his successful reelection bid, early GOP primary polls leading into 2023 showed DeSantis extremely competitive against Trump, who officially launched his presidential bid one week after the November midterms. In the meantime, DeSantis remained on the sidelines, delaying his entry to the race til the end of Florida’s legislative session in the spring.
However, a seismic shift occurred in presidential politics: the indictment by New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The indictment against Trump, centered on whether laws were broken in the 2016 hush money payments he made to pornstar Stormy Daniels, was widely-criticized over its legal flimsiness. But outside the courtroom, Republicans rallied behind the former president as they saw the first of what ultimately became four rounds of indictments they perceived as the targeting the Democrat-controlled justice system of a political opponent. And that translated in a major boost for Trump in the polls.
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“I don’t know if there is anything Ron DeSantis could have done to overcome the rally-around effect of the indictments against Trump,” Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson told Fox News Digital. “With each successive indictment, a significant number of Republicans continued to move towards Trump in defiance of the political establishment.”
“If Democrats wanted Trump to be the nominee because they thought he would be easier to beat, they accomplished the mission of preventing DeSantis from rising again. To a large extent, the events were beyond DeSantis’ ability to control,” Jacobson added.
Fast-forward to May 2023. DeSantis finally entered the race. Except he forwent the traditional televised rally often where a candidate is joined onstage by their beautiful family and adoring fans in the backdrop to launch the campaign. Instead, he went for an audio conversation with Elon Musk on X that was plagued with technical difficulties and crashes (The DeSantis campaign spun the blunder as the governor “breaking the internet.”).
Despite the ridicule from the legacy media and Trump supporters, DeSantis carried on and maintained the strategy of dodging the liberal press.
Several weeks of campaigning have not translated into any shift in the polls for the Florida governor. In July, RealClearPolitics had him averaging at 21% while the former president was averaging over 52%. In January, it was only a 14-point spread between the two of them.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. And desperate measures meant DeSantis breaking his liberal media boycott, granting an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
That led to an avalanche of TV hits from CNN to NBC to ABC to CBS, even multiple appearances on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Those network interviews were largely cordial. While DeSantis would at times be combative, his interactions with liberal journalists paled in comparison to his COVID-era press conferences that had real fireworks.
Though DeSantis himself has express regret for not embracing the liberal media from the get-go of his campaign, would it have made any difference if he did?
“Nope,” Fox News contributor Joe Concha told Fox News Digital. “It wouldn’t have changed one vote.”
Concha commended DeSantis for being “prepared” in his various media appearances in the closing stretch of his campaign but in the end, it’s “near impossible” to peel off Trump’s support, especially since the former president “blows out the sun as far as media attention and coverage.”
Jacobson agreed. Regardless of what DeSantis’ media strategy was, “none of it mattered.”
“No interaction with the media could have changed things,” Jacobson added.
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