DeSantis Should Have Used Trump’s Media Strategy


DeSantis may have briefly had some reason to think his approach might work. He had romped to reelection in Florida and was being touted as a Trump-slayer by many a pundit, even snatching the
cover of TIME
last summer. But unlike past insurgents who rode a wave of free media into real contention — people like John McCain and Howard Dean and Pete Buttigieg — DeSantis stayed in his safe spaces.

DeSantis’ stratagem, one he rarely violated, was to stiff the mainstream press and rely on the conservative media establishment like Fox News and podcasters; his glitchy and disastrous campaign kickoff with
Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces
underscored the dubious path he thought he could carve out to secure the nomination. In fact, DeSantis was probably always doomed considering Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP and DeSantis’ own political limitations, but a different media strategy might have given him a chance.

Back in the summer of 2022,
New York
magazine,
Vanity Fair
, and the
Washington Post
observed that DeSantis and other Republicans had decided to lock out the press and speak semi-exclusively to their base because they didn’t like the portraits reporters painted.
I pointed out
that this might backfire because press avoidance makes candidates look weak; because it forces reporters to dig deeper into archival material like oral histories, memoirs, campaign finance filings and court proceedings; and because it doesn’t stop reporters from observing the campaign flow. For my trouble, I received a
Twitter scolding
from DeSantis’ two-fisted press secretary, Christina Pushaw, who wrote that DeSantis didn’t “talk to the liberal press, including Politico” because “he just doesn’t care” and “he doesn’t want to give you clicks or ratings.” Pushaw went on to shape communications strategy for DeSantis’ insular,
extremely online
campaign.

Having locked the press out, DeSantis can’t, like so many candidates before him, blame negative press coverage for his political crackup because much of the negative coverage of him was purposely provoked by him and Pushaw. What was the theory here? Did they think that by making the mainstream press the enemy, they would recruit support from voters who also disliked the press on the grounds that the enemy of your enemy is your friend?

DeSantis should have taken a page from Trump’s playbook. The former president is second to nobody when it comes to unleashing hellfire on the press — “the enemy of the people” in his words — but Trump also cultivates reporters behind the scenes and his aides know how to work the media.

Ultimately, the two biggest mistakes the DeSantis campaign made were 1) thinking Trump was washed up and that DeSantis could effortlessly inherit the crown by aping the former president’s positions and 2) that currying favor as the Fox News favorite would push him over the top. As recently as last spring, Fox was still “shadowbanning” Trump,
according to Semafor
, stiffing his reelection campaign because the Murdochs had had their fill of him. As a programming substitute, they had drafted DeSantis and Nikki Haley and even filled hours with Vivek Ramaswamy, giving him coverage disproportionate to the political neophyte’s popularity.

Perhaps DeSantis and Pushaw never investigated whether or not Fox could elect a president all on its own. As many times as Rupert Murdoch and Fox co-creator Roger Ailes tried, they never succeeded in putting their
favorite candidate in the White House
. In 2016, it backed Trump only after he had vanquished the rest of the field. As soon as Trump knocks Haley out, Fox will line up behind him once again, and DeSantis will join the dustheap of former hopefuls like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Ben Carson, all of whom had paid gigs on Fox as part of the channel’s habit of building presidential hopefuls’ profiles.

Just four days ago, it occurred to DeSantis that his
anti-media strategy was a mistake
. “I should have just been blanketing. I should have gone on all the corporate shows. I should have gone on everything,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt. It’s a nice thought, but who really thinks that had DeSantis cuddled with mainstream reporters his campaign would have turned out any differently?

He appears to have learned that there’s something about him the camera doesn’t like, something that elicits anti-charisma from deep inside. If we were to suddenly learn that DeSantis is actually a vampire, who among us would be surprised? Uncomfortable with reporters, uncomfortable with voters, dangerously stone-faced on stage, and scary when trying to emote or connect, he lacks the people skills of a Buttigieg to face a critical interviewer and exit the session with his pride and humor intact, and that contributed to his defeat.

What DeSantis needed in 2024 was a miracle worker like the young Roger Ailes, who in 1968 took a similarly dyspeptic press-hater, Richard Nixon, and staged “
methodically orchestrated
“ TV town halls titled “
The Nixon Answer
” before Republican audiences recruited by campaign operatives. The point was to showcase the “new Nixon,” and the programs succeeded in softening Nixon’s image. “It’s not a press conference,” Ailes said. “The audience is part of the show. And that’s the whole point. It’s a television show. Our television show.”

Would a series of “The DeSantis Answer” propaganda extravaganzas have extended his candidacy? Maybe. Campaigns without magic generally need a backstage magician to succeed.

*****

Would staging “The Shafer Answer” make me likable? Don’t send your answer to
[email protected]
. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My
Twitter
account will never be called my X account. Against my better judgment I’ve started using
Threads
. My RSS feed will return some day, but maybe not until 2028.



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