Four Items.

John Ellis
10 min readApr 29, 2023


1. Daron Shaw, University of Texas at Austin professor of government, top pollster and Fox News Decision Desk team member, made an interesting point the other day. I can’t find the transcript, but this is the gist:

The second choice of Trump voters is DeSantis. The second choice of DeSantis voters is “don’t know.”

At this stage, the campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination revolves around those two sentences.

Oversimplified, there are two brackets. One is the MAGA bracket. The other is the Not-Trump bracket.

Trump will win the MAGA bracket; by how much we don’t know. But he will win it, which means he’ll be in the championship match no matter what.

On the other half of the big board, DeSantis is doing everything he can to make it appear he already has emerged, or soon will emerge, as the winner of the Not-Trump bracket. Add in defectors from the MAGA bracket (whom he is actively wooing) and the nomination is within reach. In theory.

Making it appear as if a deal is done before a deal is done is known in the business world as “the presumptive close.” Up until recently, the DeSantis version of the presumptive close had been going along nicely. The GOP “establishment,” lacking a realistic option, was unenthusiastically supportive. “Traditional” conservatives were coming aboard. Major donors were writing checks. DeSantis’s PAC was awash in cash. Perhaps most important, Fox News was openly boosting his candidacy and keeping Trump off its programs (until recently). Even the mainstream media was touting DeSantis’s “electability” and asserting his dominance of the Not-Trump “lane” to the nomination.

Then things stopped going along nicely and started going south. DeSantis’s standing in national and statewide polls of likely Republican primary voters and caucus attenders plummeted. A recent poll found Trump “leading” (not by much, but still) in Florida, DeSantis’s home state, where he won re-election five or so months ago with 60% of the vote and with more than 90% of Republican votes cast. If that poll is to be believed, Trump is now even with DeSantis among Republicans in Florida. Which pretty much sums up DeSantis’s last few weeks.

The question is: If not DeSantis, if the presumptive close turns out to be presumptuous, who emerges from the “Not Trump” bracket? Who is “don’t know?”

One possibly correct answer might be: No one, really. Trump wins easily. Another might be: DeSantis, who rebounds and faces off with Trump in “the finals.” A third might be: Mike Pence, who has a base (evangelicals) that he can build from. A fourth might be: A player to be named later (Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Gov. Chris Sununu, Tucker Carlson (more on that later), etc).

Trump needs to convince his supporters that their second choice is not DeSantis; that he’s a not-Trumper and has to compete in that bracket. The others need to convince DeSantis’s supporters that DeSantis isn’t up to the task of defeating Trump and that the party desperately needs someone who can.

Put more simply: The person in the way of everyone else, for the moment at least, is not Donald Trump. It’s Ron DeSantis. Which means he’s the one everyone will be carving up — on and off the record — for the foreseeable future.

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2. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last week announced his candidacy for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination and was immediately written off because, we were told, he had zero chance of being the nominee.

Correct! He has zero chance of being the nominee.

So what?

The fact that he won’t be the 2024 Democratic presidential nominee does not mean he won’t have a significant impact on the 2024 presidential campaign. Ask Lyndon Johnson if Sen. Gene McCarthy had any chance of being the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968. Ask George H.W. Bush if Pat Buchanan had any chance of being the Republican presidential nominee in 1992. Neither McCarthy nor Buchanan had a realistic chance of being their respective parties’ nominees. Both men had a measurable impact on the outcome of the general elections in 1968 and 1992.

McCarthy and Buchanan were “messengers.” The “establishment” reaction to their candidacies was “shoot the messenger.” But they persisted, and subsisted, because they gave voice to discontent. That’s what some candidates become, sometimes. They become vehicles of discontent.

As a vehicle of discontent, you could do worse than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The name still resonates. He has a tagline that only he can use: “I think we can do better.” And he has a persuasive Kennedy-esque message — “it’s time for a new generation of leadership” — even if that message doesn’t apply to him specifically. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that America is desperate for a new generation of leadership.

Kennedy has other things going for him aside from his family’s political “brand.” He only has to focus on one state: New Hampshire. And he need only deliver one message. That message is: “you deserve a choice.”

The Biden re-election campaign’s message is: “I’ve unified the party, I’ve accomplished more than that Obama guy ever did and I’m the only one who can beat Trump.” That last bit (he’s the only one who can beat Trump) got him 8% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary in 2020. He finished fifth.

New Hampshire Democratic primary voters are not Biden enthusiasts. They are even less enthusiastic since his political operation re-arranged the calendar so that South Carolina would hold the first Democratic presidential primary. Being the first primary has been, for as long as anyone can remember, New Hampshire’s self-assumed birthright. The South Carolina switcheroo was a nasty slap in the face.

But the primary calendar issue is an appetizer. The main course is a statistic: Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire do not want Biden to seek re-election. And what is true in New Hampshire is true of Democratic primary voters all across the country: they do not want Biden to seek re-election. The reason is known to all: he’s too old.

The last time “old” was an issue in a New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary was 1984, but then it wasn’t “miles on the tires” so much as it was “yesterday’s news.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not analogous to the Senator Gary Hart of 1984. He’s not as substantial or as grounded in Democratic Party politics. But Joe Biden is a lot like Walter Mondale; liked within the party, a war horse of sorts, but universally viewed as past his prime.

Given that, and it is a given, the “you deserve a choice” message will resonate. If the Kennedy campaign is smart, voters in New Hampshire will not be asked to vote for Kennedy for president. They’ll be asked to give their fellow Democrats all across the country an option, or options; the option/options being a new generation of leadership. That’s an attractive offer and one that just might get those voters past the many reasons to vote against Kennedy.

The Biden White House and the Democratic Party “establishment” are approaching next year’s primaries in the same fashion as Ron DeSantis is approaching the “Not Trump” bracket; with a presumptive close. It’s a done deal. Biden’s re-nomination is inevitable. Challenging him, in any way, only helps Trump. Democrats shouldn’t entertain any stupid ideas about not voting for Biden. Just get with the program and shut your mouth.

Voters don’t like being told that they’re stupid and should do as they’re told. They have a tendency to take it personally and return the favor on election day.

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3. A while back, then-NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell let it be known that he was thinking of reconfiguring CNBC’s prime time schedule. The New York Times’ then- media columnist Ben Smith reported Mr. Shell was thinking that maybe conservative chat shows would attract a larger audience than the existing programming schedule.

He was, and is, probably right about that. The problem was that Fox News Channel had turned its first-mover advantage and strong brand into a conservative talk fortress. So the idea seemed to evaporate. I kept looking for some sort of update on the “plan.” It struck me as a smart play that could play, given time and talent. I never heard or read another word about it.

You can see why it was not pursued. Reprogramming conservative talk into an NBC News property would be contentious within the company (to say the least). Without “star power” to attract an audience, it would also be a slog. The audience would have to find the programming, rather than be attracted to it. That can take years. And the underserved part of the market isn’t conservative. It’s hard right. Fox’s prime time talent has always been careful to keep that in mind.

The only way around these “issues” was television’s answer to everything: “star power.”

And guess what? There’s a lot of star power pacing the sidelines these days. There’s Tucker Carlson (8pm) and Megyn Kelly (9pm), for starters. Put Billy Bush on at 10pm as a Bill Maher-like host and suddenly CNBC has a prime time line-up that can not only compete with Fox News, it can beat Fox News in prime time (in the ratings). Every night.

Amateur hour “networks” like OANN and Newsmax don’t pose any real threat to Fox in the short, medium or long term. And it could well be that Dominion puts them both out of business. Fox wasn’t the only outlet that did what it did with reckless disregard for the truth. OANN and Newsmax were every bit as indulgent of “stop the steal” as Fox.

CNBC has no such exposure. It has no lawsuits hanging over it. It prints money. And the cost of producing three conservative chat shows, talent aside, is not expensive. The package — Carlson-Kelly-Bush — would be (very) expensive, but the pay-off would be more or less immediate.

You can see why this will never happen. Mr. Carlson isn’t going to do anything until the media dust settles, his “exit package” is signed and he’s heard all the arguments for why he would win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. Ms. Kelly had an unhappy stint with NBC before and would probably pass on the opportunity to do primetime television again, given her family life and the success of her direct-to-consumer internet programming. Billy Bush’s experience with the skittish NBC suits was an unhappy one, to put it mildly.

But…..each has his or her reasons for getting back on a major network platform and laying waste to their detractors. And each of them, regardless of how you might feel about them, is very good at what they do.

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4. One thing you may have noticed this week is that news about Fox News rates. By my count, there have been, so far, 936,456 news reports and columns written about Fox, Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox, the settlement, Rupert Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s cancelled wedding, Rupert Murdoch’s rocking chair, Lachlan Murdoch, Viet Dinh, hapless Fox management, Tucker Carlson, Tucker Carlson, Tucker Carlson, what it all means, what it might mean for the future, what it tells us about the past, on and on and on and never ending.

Cable news network axes cable news chat show host isn’t what one would call major news. It happens, frequently. In the case of Fox and Tucker Carlson, however, it was major click-bait and as a result generated vast mounts of coverage, especially in the mainstream media. At one point this week, the “home page” of The New York Times business section featured four articles/columns about Fox News. You had to scroll down to read that First Republic Bank might collapse, which might cause a problem for the banking system in America.

First things first!

In the stretch to provide as much Tucker Carlson “news” as possible, and thus reap the rewards of higher page views, mainstream media outlets (like CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post) chewed over the notion that Mr. Carlson might run for president.

What about that? Is it “crazy”? Is it “out of the question”? Would he have any kind of chance of winning the GOP nomination?

The answer to those three questions is “no,” “maybe” and “yes.” It’s not crazy because he has a base of support (his audience). It might not be a big enough base. It might have a ceiling. But he would get off to a roaring start (media coverage!) and would almost surely pass everyone save Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump in the pre-season polling. And I’m not sure he wouldn’t blow past DeSantis in a week or two. Put another way, Carlson’s candidacy is less crazy than Chris Christie’s candidacy.

Is it “out of the question?” Beats me. That’s a question that Carlson has to answer before we can answer it. I can’t imagine he would want to put himself (and his family) through the presidential campaign meat-grinder, but who knows? Maybe he hears ‘Hail to the Chief’ when he shaves in the morning.

Could he win? Yes, he could. A majority of Republicans would prefer that Donald Trump not run. A majority of Republicans are clearly under-whelmed by Ron DeSantis. To level the playing field, Carlson need only dust off an old Ronald Reagan trap play (with a new and improved twist), and announce that he will debate all comers once a week, every week, beginning October 1st, 2023. Not only that, he’ll pay for the debates and welcome each and every network and news outlet to cover it.

Ratings! We know Carlson reliably delivers 3.2 million viewers on a weekday evening. Add presidential politics and lengthy pre- and post-game coverage and the “debate” numbers might be 3x that, especially for the big three cable news channels (Fox, MSNBC, CNN).

Trump would choose not to participate, for fear of being embarrassed (sorry, “too busy”). DeSantis would see weekly debates as “bad for his brand,” since he doesn’t come across well on TV. Which would leave Carlson, Pence, Christie, Haley and others (whom I can’t remember) to hash things out. By far — by miles — the best television talent on that stage would be Carlson.

Those debates would become the “story” of the fall campaign. Trump rallies would be yesterday’s news. DeSantis’s “I’m never going to talk to anyone in the press, ever” would seem as odd as DeSantis himself. Carlson talks to the press all the time. So what if they’re against you? That’s an opportunity, not a problem.

As for the others, they would be sharing Carlson’s stage. Desperate for exposure (and name recognition), their campaigns running on shoestring budgets, the others would have to participate in the “Carlson debates.” They could not afford to not participate. Again: advantage Carlson.

It’s not crazy. It’s not “out of the question” (if Carlson think’s it’s not out of the question). It’s also not out of the question he could win. If you think that daft, take a trip in the YouTube way-back machine and watch Donald Trump glide down the elevator to his announcement of candidacy in 2015. Pay close attention to what he said. Carlson doesn’t sound all that different.

As Peggy Noonan put it in her column today: “Anything can happen now.”



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.