The boom in Ron DeSantis campaign coverage continues, even as DeSantis’ poll numbers have steadily declined in recent weeks. Luckily for DeSantis, what the political media wants above all else is the appearance of a tight race to bolster interest, and the Florida governor is ready to play into that for headlines.
After a campaign kickoff event in Iowa on Tuesday, DeSantis offered up a headline-friendly pledge: He’s going to “counterpunch” against Donald Trump, who has already punched him plenty. During his campaign speech, DeSantis didn’t name Trump, but sought to paint him as a one-term loser (which he is), in contrast with the winning DeSantis wants voters to believe he’s capable of.
“It’s time we impose our will on Washington, DC,” DeSantis said. “You can’t do any of this if you don’t win.” But in this, DeSantis again shows how much he’s trying to be like Trump, following him in a focus on dominance—“impose our will.” DeSantis just wants to be seen as more competent at dominance.
A nasty fight with Trump is an excellent media strategy, for a while, because political reporters won’t get a lot of the horserace stories they cherish if Trump cruises to victory in the Republican primary. But it’s less clear that it’s a good vote-getting strategy for DeSantis. Other Republicans have tried to hit back at Trump in his own style, and it hasn’t gone well for them. He will always be willing to hit harder and nastier, and he’ll be better at it. Whatever else you might say about Trump’s mental capacity, his insult IQ is extremely high. Trump’s attacks—or something—have already taken a toll on DeSantis, as shown by his falling poll numbers since he started looking like a serious candidate and came under attack.
DeSantis’ campaign is struggling to make the case that he’s a legitimate threat to Trump in the primary, with the Daily Beast reporting on leaked audio from a donor event that showed DeSantis’ team making some very shaky claims about his path to victory. But as long as he’s in second place in the polls, the media is going to be invested in presenting him as a strong challenger. What’s important to understand is that that is about the media more than it is about the Florida governor and his presidential campaign.
So we get The Washington Post with an article about Trump and DeSantis battling it out in Iowa, opening with multiple paragraphs of prominent Iowa Republicans expressing doubts about Trump, leading up to the three reporters’ judgment:
Although Trump has taken a commanding lead in national polls and many Republicans are calling him the inevitable nominee, here in Iowa, which will kick off the GOP nominating process next year, a victory is far from assured, according to interviews with local lawmakers, strategists and voters.
Later on in the article:
Quality public polling on the Iowa race has been in short supply, but the Trump campaign is drawing confidence from research showing that voters who already have an opinion about Trump and DeSantis, including those who view both favorably, say they prefer Trump.
Short supply, maybe, but not no supply. There is some polling on Iowa, and it all shows Trump with a huge lead—something the Post doesn’t bother to note. That wouldn’t fit the “tough fight for Iowa” narrative they’re going for.
Over at Fox News, meanwhile, Howard Kurtz is whining that “the media have turned on Ron DeSantis,” apparently because there’s been some reporting that wasn’t 100% glowing. “It’s impossible to ignore the avalanche of bad press that has fallen upon DeSantis,” Kurtz writes. “Whatever his shortcomings as a candidate, the media’s sustained assault on the Florida governor feels almost orchestrated.”
Apparently Kurtz, despite decades as a media reporter, is unaware of the phenomenon in which a major presidential candidate becomes the subject of in-depth reporting on his record. But even if DeSantis was getting uniformly negative coverage—which he is not—Kurtz’s complaints would ring false. Media Matters’ Matthew Gertz points out that there’s a pattern here:
If DeSantis’ current polling trajectory continues, or if another Republican rises to be the top challenger to Trump, there will come a point when the political media rushes to bury him, with every major outlet wanting to be the one with the definitive “DeSantis: What went wrong” take and the juiciest gossip from campaign staff. But that moment hasn’t come. DeSantis may no longer be in the afterglow of his Florida reelection, with the slobbering headlines about his “brand” and coverage that ignored potential signs of weakness. He’s still getting the potential frontrunner treatment. His attacks on Trump will get prominent billing. His campaign crowds will be emphasized. His supporters, or at least Trump’s critics, will be widely quoted. The question is whether DeSantis can have as much success with voters as he has at getting headlines.
We have Rural Organizing’s Aftyn Behn. Markos and Aftyn talk about what has been happening in rural communities across the country and progressives’ efforts to engage those voters. Behn also gives the podcast a breakdown of which issues will make the difference in the coming elections.