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Rethinking the Wait: DeSantis Stories Happen Without Him
The press fills the DeSantis vacuum with the voices of his haters.
In March of 1999, George W. Bush set up a presidential exploratory committee to make clear what everyone knew — he was running. I got that confused the other day with his official announcement. That actually did not come until June 12, 1999.
DeSantis will be in the race in a few weeks with his exploratory committee.
If he gets blown out of the water, the prevailing consensus is going to be that in the time between it becoming obvious DeSantis would run and the time he declared, everyone piled on him, and his team chose not to respond. They allowed everyone else to define him. In fact, that is a fundamental issue in campaigns. No candidate can afford others to define him. While DeSantis might be known to Floridians and particularly engaged partisans, most people do not really know him.
Now, to the extent they might, they probably see him as the man fighting Disney. Outside of partisans, that might be a head-scratcher for voters who wonder what could possibly be wrong with Mickey Mouse. While you and I are engaged and paying attention, most voters, including would-be primary voters, are not.
George W. Bush started his exploratory committee months before formally getting in the race and had an aggressive campaign of surrogates and spokesmen to beat back John McCain and others. In fact, McCain and a number of other would-be challengers sought to define Bush early while Bush was focused on the Texas legislative session. They failed because the exploratory committee was already operational with a press shop.
DeSantis has chosen not to do that.
Right now, the Florida legislature is operating, DeSantis is on a global business tour for Florida (an obvious prelude to building foreign policy bona fides), and the press is hungry for a story. In the absence of a DeSantis team willing to speak, the press is filling the silence with DeSantis critics and their own wrath over DeSantis ignoring them.
One cannot understand the present level of DeSantis bashing in the press without remembering the amount of energy the New York Times has devoted to fretting about DeSantis not talking to the New York Times. The handwringing began in January with “Can Ron DeSantis Avoid Meeting the Press?” and with “DeSantis and the Media: (Not) a Love Story.” It continued in February with “DeSantis, Aiming at a Favorite Foil, Wants to Roll Back Press Freedom.” It carried over into March with “Ron DeSantis Usually Avoids the Press. For Murdoch, He’ll Make an Exception.” And it has continued through April with “Right-Wing Media Splits From DeSantis on Press Protections.” That is the Times’s level of obsession with DeSantis ignoring them. Now add the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS. Even Florida papers like the Miami Herald are left in the cold without DeSantis sources and stoop to pettiness and revenge coverage.
Puck News, whose premise is its reporters own a share of the work and are claimed to be the most plugged-in reporters in the business, has Tara Palmeri on the DeSantis beat. A few weeks ago, as DeSantis was privately meeting with his presidential team continuing the road map to his formal announcement, Palmeri breathlessly speculated DeSantis might punt till 2026.
In just the past few weeks, Palmeri has given us “The DeSantis Endorsement-ghazi Blame Game,” “DeSantis’s New Donor Defiance,” “The Jeff Roe DeSantis U-Turn,” “DeSantis Donor Quakes & New Hampshire Foibles,” and “The Hottest Florida Political Tea,” which contained the subtitle, “How the state’s political insiders are digesting DeSantis’s recent shadow-primary stumbles, the entry of Jeff Roe, and other high octane Tallahassee political gossip.”
In addition to Palmeri speculating DeSantis might not run the same weekend he had gathered major surrogates to plot policy positions to announce, she also “reported” the New Hampshire Republican Party was struggling to sell tickets to its Lincoln Dinner featuring DeSantis. The event sold out and set records for money raised. Instead of admitting her sources were wrong, Palmeri tried to take credit for the ticket sales.
One of the reporters to fairly capture the dynamic is David Drucker at The Dispatch, who captured the issue:
Whether providing positive or negative assessments of DeSantis, most Republican insiders in Tallahassee would only speak to The Dispatch if granted anonymity, given the governor’s dislike of leaks or gossip. “There’s no questions asked; you’re just done,” the lobbyist supportive of DeSantis explained. [Emphasis added]
DeSantis’s team is loyal, does not leak, and has no use for Tara Palmeri or the New York Times. While the Trump team excoriates Maggie Haberman and the Times, they also use her and leak stories to her. DeSantis’s team does not do that.
The result is a growing narrative: DeSantis is sunk before leaving the gate; DeSantis is on the autism spectrum and unable to relate to people; donors have fled him; and he is toast. All these stories are built without a single voice from the DeSantis sphere, both as punishment for his team’s refusal to participate and as part of the inevitability of the media running stories on the obviously running candidate and needing to say something. His team has provided no voice, so the voices of the anti-DeSantis forces get to dominate.
Over the weekend, even CNN got in on the act with Harry Enten, a responsible poll watcher, writing “How bad is it for Ron DeSantis? He’s polling at RFK Jr.’s level.” DeSantis, unlike Robert Kennedy, Jr. is not (yet) a candidate for president.
If DeSantis gets in and defies the narrative, he has lots of room to grow. People will react to his defiance of expectations deducing the prevailing narratives about him were wrong. If he gets in and stumbles, he risks the Rick Perry rout of 2012 with expectations very high and then forgetting he wanted to eliminate the department he later steered as Secretary of Energy.
“Duh,” you can say, but the reality is this: DeSantis’ refusal to cooperate with the press will be set in stone for subsequent presidential campaigns as a thing one must not do should DeSantis lose. If he wins, Republicans from here on out will have carte blanche to avoid the national political press. It is why the press must work with Trump to destroy DeSantis. They cannot let that happen, and they also prefer Trump because they know their ratings and revenue with him.
It is also why a great many Republicans hope DeSantis proves them all wrong, including many not necessarily in his camp but recognizing how nasty and partisan the press has become. Should DeSantis do well, despite all press coverage, it would be another very strong indication that the press’s ability to shape public opinion is weaker than it has ever been.