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Ron DeSantis has entered the doom loop

Coverage of the Florida governor's political demise is feeding on itself.

The headlines for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign are brutal. “DeSantis campaign sheds staff amid cash crunch.” “‘A long slog’: Inside DeSantis’s early struggles and effort to rebound.” “Focus groups: Minnesota swing voters reject DeSantis culture wars.” “DeSantis’ campaign finances have some flashing warning signs.

What happened to the Republican who was supposed to be a smarter and more competent version of Donald Trump? What derailed the governor who many GOP bigwigs hoped would take down the former president in the primaries?

Ron DeSantis has entered the doom loop. 

From where he sits, this wave of negative media coverage no doubt seems deeply unfair. After all, the first nominating contest is still six months away. He and the other candidates only just started the quadrennial marathon of shameless pandering that is the primaries, trooping to state fairs to wolf down the latest food-on-a-stick, nodding along knowingly as farmers explain crop prices and pretending to be overjoyed to shake hands at one more diner. They haven’t even had their first debate. 

If DeSantis thinks he isn’t getting a fair shake, he should remember that he was largely a media creation in the first place.

Yet candidates are regularly culled at this stage of the process by a ruthless news media on the lookout for breakthroughs and flameouts. Most also-rans fall victim to a predictable cycle. Fail to quickly produce excitement among the voters just beginning to tune in, and you can expect to be ignored by reporters. Voters who never see you in the news won’t consider you as a serious option, and you’ll be stuck far back in the polls. Seeing those polls, donors won’t want to waste their money on you. And without donations, you won’t have the funds to air ads and mount a robust campaign. For some candidates, it becomes an endless circle: Because they’re behind, they can’t garner the attention and resources to move up. 

DeSantis’ predicament is related, with an additional ingredient: Though we may not be doing it consciously, we in the news media love to build someone up, then tear them down. But if DeSantis thinks he isn’t getting a fair shake, he should remember that he was largely a media creation in the first place. 

Remember, long before he officially announced a run for the White House, DeSantis was universally acknowledged as the principal alternative to Donald Trump, the only Republican who had a strong chance to dethrone the former president. Why? There are other big-state Republican governors who would have had just as strong a case to make to their party’s base. Texas’ Greg Abbott, like DeSantis, has been an enthusiastic culture warrior who was easily re-elected in 2022. Georgia’s Brian Kemp has governed from the right without becoming a Trump lickspittle. That’s not to mention the 23 other Republican governors, most of whom you’ve barely heard of.

So why is it that everyone in America who pays any attention to politics knows all about DeSantis? The simple answer is that, from August 2017 to May 2021, Fox News put him on the air an incredible 173 times. The rest of the national news media took the cue, paying more attention to the laws he signed and the fights he started than they did for other Republican governors. That elevated profile generated its own momentum; once everybody had an opinion about DeSantis, the next time he tried to restrict what can be said in classrooms or lashed out at “woke” corporations, it was more likely to get on the front page or the nightly news. And when Republican donors and kingmakers looked for a Trump alternative, DeSantis’ profile made him the obvious choice.

As the campaign intensified though, genuine problems emerged: a notable dearth of charisma, solid but unspectacular fundraising (though his affiliated super PAC has a huge amount of money, mostly transferred from unused funds he raised in his 2022 re-election effort) and a lack of appeal to independent voters. While he’s still clearly second to Trump in early polls, for the last few months he’s been losing rather than gaining support. 

From August 2017 to May 2021, Fox News put DeSantis on the air an incredible 173 times.

Those facts are true, but like all facts, they can be either highlighted or ignored depending on the narrative. At the moment, when reporters are writing stories about DeSantis, they’re likely to focus on the problems he’s having rather than the strengths he brings to the campaign. They’ll have an easier time finding insiders who will say uncomplimentary things about him. And when a voter tells them, “I still like DeSantis, but I think I’m going back to Trump,” they’ll put the quote in their articles. 

That coverage will, at least for a time, feed on itself. And now Fox News — and other media outlets controlled by Rupert Murdoch — has toughened its coverage of DeSantis, reportedly because Murdoch has grown skeptical of his chances. Meanwhile, the network’s new prime-time schedule is made up entirely of Trump superfans who can be relied on to be cheerleaders for the former president. 

Despite all that, there’s no reason the story of DeSantis’ rise and fall (or at least stumble) can’t be followed by another familiar story: the dramatic comeback. We’ve seen it plenty of times before. One thing the news media always craves is something new to report on, a development that changes everything and reinvigorates the drama of the race. Perhaps DeSantis will be the next beneficiary, or it might be someone else. But it’ll happen sooner or later. The race is just getting started.