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DeSantis strategy includes flooding zone with news, targeting conservative media

Unlike former President Donald Trump, DeSantis leaves the combative tweets to members of his communications staff.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at the Knights of Columbus in Elmhurst in Illinois on Feb. 20, 2023.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at the Knights of Columbus in Elmhurst in Illinois on Feb. 20, 2023. [ CHRIS SWEDA | Chicago Tribune ]
Published Feb. 23, 2023

Serious presidential candidates — especially ones competing against a ubiquitous media presence like Donald Trump — have to find ways to grab voters’ attention on the campaign trail or risk withering away.

Ron DeSantis’ second term in office suggests he’s preparing to meet that challenge.

Florida’s governor has been on a news-making binge since the year began, an almost-daily barrage of policy roll-outs, public appearances and political jabs.

The approach, rooted in a far-reaching agenda that has targeted everything from suing media outlets to promoting gas stoves, has drawn widespread attention from national conservative media and right-wing podcasters. At the same time, his team has earned a reputation for routinely and strategically avoiding interviews with other mainstream outlets that may not prove as friendly to his platform.

To Republicans and even some critics looking ahead to the GOP primary, the governor’s effort to flood the zone looks like a dry run for a presidential campaign, showcasing his dedication to make news at a dizzying pace. It’s a strategic choice necessary to take on a famous attention-hog like Trump, they argued, even if he still has a ways to go to match the former president.

“It’s a smart strategy for him right now,” said Jim Merrill, a longtime New Hampshire-based GOP strategist. “Given where he is, he has the ability to wait before jumping into a primary. His policy pronouncements and other avenues to communicate a message, I think it’s an effective way for him to stay front of mind for voters before he’s even campaigning.”

DeSantis has not yet publicly announced if he’s running for president, but he is checking all the boxes of a potential campaign. He is publishing a book titled “The Courage to be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” actively courting supporters at rowdy events across the country and continuing to raise millions of dollars in the aftermath of an overwhelming reelection in 2022.

Republicans involved in the 2024 party primary almost universally expect he will become a White House candidate later this year, though he is playing coy when asked about his plans.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” DeSantis recently told a reporter when asked about his plans to run for the Republican nomination for president.

Early polls of the race show DeSantis receiving more support nationally and in key early nominating contests than other potential candidates. In some surveys, he even tops his burgeoning rival Trump.

Some of that early show of support, party strategists insist, is a consequence of just how much news the governor continues to make — and how extensively the activity is documented in conservative media.

In the last two months, DeSantis has plotted a conservative takeover of a small Sarasota liberal college, rejected an Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it “lacks educational value,” and proposed a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs at universities. He’s pushed for the death penalty in cases without a unanimous jury and filed a complaint to revoke the liquor license of an Orlando venue over a drag queen event.

The news has come so fast that, at times, one story hasn’t even ended before another one begins: In early February, DeSantis outshined the start of a special legislative session (one he had called days earlier) by announcing he wanted to make it easier to sue media outlets for libel and defamation in Florida. As the governor made the announcement, state lawmakers had just convened in Tallahassee to address revisions to state law involving both the governor’s feud with Disney and his migrant flights.

Related: Those accused of discrimination would have new protections under Florida bill

The news-making isn’t confined to public policy in Florida, either.

DeSantis was also filmed shaking hands at an NFL playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars and went out of his way, in an interview with conservative activist Charlie Kirk, to weigh in on the Republican National Committee chairman’s race.

On Monday, DeSantis did a three-state tour, including in the Democratic strongholds of New York City and Chicago, to talk about combating crime and boosting police officers. Republicans tracking media said the visits were covered extensively by Fox News and local TV affiliates.

Monetizing media attention

DeSantis’ administration closely tracks how much the events net him in free media coverage — including from media outlets he and his spokespeople claim to despise.

When he suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren last year, his team produced a splashy news conference for the event, coordinating it with social media posts and a news release. That night, DeSantis went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News broadcast to tout the dismissal.

The suspension and their social media efforts led to “$992,330 of free earned media across the state across 14 days,” DeSantis’ director of strategic initiatives, Brandy Brown, wrote in a report to his communications director, Taryn Fenske.

“Nationally, this story was mentioned 72 times, resulting in $1.27 million of free earned media across the country,” she wrote. “This includes 22 times on MSNBC, 9 times on Fox News, and 5 times on CNN.”

The total “free earned media coverage” was $2.4 million in the 14 days after the event, Brown calculated.

The report was revealed after Warren sued DeSantis, claiming the governor violated his right to free speech.

During the trial over Warren’s ouster, Fenske testified that they do such reports on all of the governor’s major events.

Related: DeSantis prevailed over Andrew Warren. Other lawsuits show what might come next.

Other DeSantis actions seem more targeted for conservative media, political operatives say. Earlier this month, DeSantis backed a sales tax exemption for gas stoves, after the idea of a national ban was floated by a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and caused an uproar among political conservatives.

The move was immediately seized on by social media influencers and Fox News alike.

Related: The White House is not taking away your gas stoves and ovens

“He’s really good at manipulating the conservative media to his benefit,” said Tim Miller, a former GOP political operative. “And the proof is in the pudding. It’s working for him, he gets positive headlines in the conservative media constantly.”

Miller spotlighted DeSantis’ decision to appoint Christopher Rufo, an activist well-known in conservative circles, to the board of New College of Florida in January, as an example of a governor intent on cultivating a relationship with the online right.

“What DeSantis is doing is glomming on to the things that people are mad about online and making them his own,” said Miller, a writer for The Bulwark, a media outlet that has been critical of the governor.

DeSantis knows how to weaponize the media attention, too.

At the 2021 meeting of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, DeSantis said companies should expect a rebuke from politicians like him if they embraced “woke” policies.

“I may look under the hood and not like some things,’’ he warned the business audience. “I got a podium. I got cameras that will follow me around. Maybe I’ll go talk about that a little bit. And so, I think it’s something that’s very damaging.”

Trump still on top

Trump’s ability to command media attention, including wall-to-wall coverage on cable TV networks, was almost universally viewed as a strength of his campaign during his last competitive GOP presidential primary, in 2016.

On this front, DeSantis might be gaining ground on the former president — but he still has a ways to go.

According to data provided by the liberal group Media Matters for America, the three cable TV networks — including MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News — mentioned Trump 4,894 times the first five weeks of the year, compared to just 852 times for DeSantis.

On Fox News from Jan. 1 through Feb. 5, Trump held an edge of 836 mentions to 244 mentions for DeSantis.

But the governor’s deficit against Trump might not be as harmful as it might seem, according to an analyst familiar with the data. For one, DeSantis was still mentioned far more frequently than another potential primary rival, former Vice President Mike Pence, who was mentioned just 582 times across the three major cable networks.

“Ron DeSantis is occupying a bigger piece of the news hole than any other Republican contender outside of Trump himself,” said Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters.

But coverage of the former president, Gertz added, can often be more negative and outside of his control, like when the FBI says it seized classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate last year. DeSantis’ events are more controlled, more strategic.

“The lesson Ron DeSantis has learned from Trump’s 2016 race is, if you create a lot of news on your own terms, you reduce the amount of coverage of aspects of your political persona that is less favorable to you,” Gertz said. “You have more control over the stories the media is telling if you are creating those stories.”

Gertz cited, for instance, a relative lack of coverage of Florida’s decision not to expand Medicaid coverage in the state.

Other political observers say DeSantis’ media approach might be reminiscent of Trump’s, at least in terms of the volume of the news he creates. But they say there are also important differences.

DeSantis, for one, leaves the combative tweets to members of his communications staff, unlike Trump, whose past personal use of Twitter would routinely roil the country. (Trump is no longer on Twitter, preferring a different social media site for now.)

And they say DeSantis is much less willing to talk off the cuff or about subjects he’s not as familiar with, with some noting his relative reticence to weigh in on foreign policy issues over the last few months.

“I put his brand-building talents on par with Donald Trump,” said David Jolly, a former Republican U.S. congressman from Florida. “It just looks very different in how he does it. Donald Trump beats you over the head with it. Ron DeSantis is a mile deep behind the thing he’s asking you to embrace.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.