ICYMI: Daytona Beach News-Journal: Fox News is helping Ron DeSantis catch up in governor race
Today, the Daytona News-Journal published an in-depth look at how Ron DeSantis has used Fox News and “right-wing populist trigger phrases” to quickly close the gap with Adam Putnam — and hide his lack of knowledge about the key issues facing Florida.
Here’s the key takeaways from the must-read piece:
By Mark Harper
A chance encounter at a Palm Coast Dunkin’ Donuts left Ronald Merlo impressed with his congressman.
So impressed, in fact, Merlo decided to contribute $100 to try to help Ron DeSantis become Florida’s next governor.
“I think he’s got the right stuff, and I think he’d make an excellent governor,” the retired investor and lifelong Republican said. “You can approach him.”
But in a state of 20 million people, not very many voters are going to run into DeSantis — or fellow Republicans Adam Putnam or Richard Corcoran or any of their Democratic opponents, for that matter — so their campaigns require more sophistication.
Putnam, who has the advantage of having been elected twice statewide, has run a more traditional campaign. For years, he’s raised money and has a war chest of more than $20 million. He’s carried his message to all corners of the state, including DeLand, where two weeks ago about 200 people showed up to hear him speak for a half-hour, in an attempt to fulfill his slogan, “Florida’s grassroots conservative.”
Corcoran, who hasn’t formally filed as a candidate, is also expected to come at the job from a more traditional route, parlaying his two years as Florida House Speaker into a campaign extolling his mantra, “Less talk. More action.”
Both men, as have Democrats Gwen Graham, Philip Levine, Andrew Gillum and Chris King, met with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and took public positions on calls for a response to the shooting that left 17 dead.
DeSantis has stayed away from the media circuses in Parkland and Tallahassee, releasing only a written statement critical of the FBI and Broward County sheriff, calling for more funding for mental health services, defending efforts to harden school security and criticizing lawmakers’ move to raise the legal age for the purchase of semiautomatic weapons from 18 to 21.
“When dealing with a right that is specifically enumerated in the Constitution, blanket restrictions that diminish individual rights are suspect,” the statement reads. “Better to focus on denying firearms to dangerous individuals, which avoids infringing on constitutional rights and is also more likely to be effective.”
Other than his campaign rollout event in Boca Raton and private fundraisers, DeSantis has done very little public campaigning in Florida, showing up only at fundraisers and events like the Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Brevard County Feb. 24. While his campaign debuted online ads last week, he has consistently declined or ignored interview requests from The News-Journal and other newspapers, and a campaign staffer asked a newspaper reporter to leave a private fundraiser at an Ormond Beach country club on Feb. 19.
Instead of traditional news coverage or ad buys, DeSantis has hit on another strategy that political experts say exposes him to many of the most loyal Republican primary voters while masking his inexperience in state matters: Fox News.
Dozens of appearances
DeSantis appeared on Fox News 29 times from 2012 to 2016, according to researcher Gregory Martin of Emory University. By contrast, Putnam appeared just once during that time and Corcoran hadn’t been on at all.
Martin’s data runs only through 2016, but the politically progressive Media Matters for America nonprofit notes that DeSantis had appeared on Fox News 15 times during the first two months of 2018, while Putnam hadn’t been on once. Following the Feb. 14 South Florida school shooting, Corcoran made four appearances.
Fox News media relations did not respond to a request for an interview, but just during the week of Feb. 12-16, DeSantis made these appearances:
“The Brian Kilmeade Show” on Fox News radio.
“Outnumbered” on Fox News television.
“The Todd Starnes Show” on Fox News radio.
“Kennedy” on Fox Business television.
“American Newsroom” on Fox News.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News
“The Ingraham Angle” on Fox News.
“One thing you can’t discount is if you are a fixture on Fox News for a race, that is a pretty damn good signal to the donor class you are the viable candidate. … That makes you stronger,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters. “A lot of campaigns spend an enormous amount of money to reach that Fox audience.”
While DeSantis was able to kick off his campaign with “Fox & Friends,” the network’s morning program, very few of his appearances cover issues specific to Florida and the governor’s race.
More typically, DeSantis is asked about his work as a congressman, his concerns about the FBI, Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the largely debunked Uranium One matter and his calls for a special counsel investigation into abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA Court.
With the primary still more than five months away, DeSantis benefits regardless of the topic, political campaign experts say, and numbers bear that out.
Last fall, Putnam had the support of 26 percent of voters in the Florida Chamber of Commerce poll, with DeSantis second at 9 percent.
A Dec. 22 tweet of support from President Trump and all those Fox News appearances later, DeSantis has cut the gap dramatically. A Mason-Dixon poll released earlier this week showed Putnam’s lead had dwindled to 27-23, with Corcoran sitting at 7 percent.
Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant and pollster whose company, Ozean Media, is based in Gainesville, called the development “stunning.”
With most Republican voters still undecided and all of the candidates scrambling for name recognition, DeSantis has found a winning strategy.
“At this early stage, it’s about name ID,” Patton said. “Ron DeSantis, he’s a three-term congressman from Northeast Florida. Has never run statewide, doesn’t have the statewide ID. It’s a brilliant move.”
Fox makes a difference
A study in the American Economic Review last fall found that Fox News has made a difference in presidential elections. Martin, the Emory political scientist, and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu, using a complicated methodology, estimated that George W. Bush’s vote totals in the 2004 election would have been nearly 4 percentage points lower, making John Kerry the popular-vote winner if not for the influence of Fox News. Also, they found Barack Obama’s advantage in the 2008 election would have been more than 6 points greater if not for the Fox effect.
The network’s impact on statewide races is certainly more murky, but longtime Florida Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich said DeSantis can only be helped by taking advantage of his opportunities for Fox News exposure.
“The right-wing media echo chamber led by Fox is very, very friendly to him, and that content is consumed by Republican primary supervoters,” Stipanovich said. “He’s preaching to the right-wing choir and you’re seeing it reflected in the polls.
“It also conceals a weakness he might have: He doesn’t know anything about state government or the issues facing the people of Florida,” Stipanovich added. “He can’t talk about that. He has to talk about Mueller and Deep State conspiracies and the wall, and hitting all the usual right-wing populist trigger phrases.”
That might work with some voters, but not Joseph Fogg of Naples.
The former CEO of a venture capital and private equity firm who has previously backed DeSantis, a fellow graduate of Yale University, said he’s pledged his support in the governor’s race to Corcoran.
“I’m still very fond of (DeSantis) and would support him in most of his endeavors,” Fogg said. “If you look at the candidates, Richard (Corcoran) has got by far the most experience for governor.”
Corcoran found his way to Fox News recently by calling for Broward Sheriff Scott Israel’s suspension as details emerged about the deputies’ response.
On Twitter, Brad Herold, DeSantis’ campaign manager, was asked how he could let another candidate move in on his Fox turf.
“Imitation,” he wrote, “is the sincerest form of flattery.”