Fox and Trump

I sent this “column” to News Items subscribers on November 16th and am reposting it here for non-subscribers. The thoughts expressed in the column were echoed in today’s Financial Times by its global media editor, Alex Barker.

1. Former President Trump’s announcement of candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination last night is seen by virtually everyone in the “political community” as a response to the rise of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose strong showing in last week’s mid-term elections appears to have catapulted him to front-runner status 14 months before the first caucus or primary.

It is that, for sure. But it’s just part of the story.

The other part of the story is Fox News. Whoever is the Fox News candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination will have an enormous advantage over his or her competition. Republican primary voters and caucus attenders are the core of the Fox News audience. If Fox is telling them that DeSantis is the one, that makes it more likely that DeSantis is the one. If, however, the Fox News audience tells Fox that DeSantis is not the one, that their guy is Trump, then Fox must adjust its coverage accordingly.

Of late, Murdoch-owned media outlets, most prominently The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, have made it painfully clear that, in their view, the time has come for Trump to go. The people who work at Fox News read The Wall Street Journal editorial pages and The New York Post editorial page avidly for direction (from the Murdochs) as to how to “budget” their coverage of politics. You’d have to be an idiot to miss the recent messages from Murdochia: Trump is done, all aboard the DeSantis Express.

Trump is not an idiot. He understands that if he loses the Fox News audience, if the DeSantis Express gets rolling, he’s done for. His only hope of stopping the train resides with the Fox News audience. If they’re still with him, then Fox will have to be with him as well. And the only way to stop the DeSantis Express is to beat him in the Nielsen ratings.

Back in 2015, Trump glided down the escalator at the Trump Tower in New York City to announce his candidacy for the 2016 presidential nomination. Both Rupert Murdoch (the owner of Fox News) and Roger Ailes (its chief executive and political king-maker) viewed the proceedings with bemusement. Both men thought Trump a buffoon. Both men thought he had little chance of winning the nomination. But following the announcement, Ailes surveyed the Nielsen Research audience data and observed something startling. Trump rated. When Trump was on Fox News Channel, regardless of the hour, the ratings ticked up, sometimes doubling the number from the previous day (sans Trump).

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The result of that was to put him on more. And more. And that was fine because there was no way he could ever be elected president, so no harm, no foul. The only problem was he was elected president and, over the course of the campaign, had built a vast and devoted following. At that point, Fox News had no choice. It either became the Trump Channel or watch another network become the Trump Channel. That was a decision that took all of 5 seconds to make. Fox News Channel became The Trump Channel.

Here we are again, a year and a month or two out from the first caucus, and the real question is: does DeSantis rate? Yes, he’ll rate in the beginning because the audience is curious. But will he rate consistently or will the audience tire of him and return to their first love, Donald Trump. Trump is betting that DeSantis doesn’t rate for very long and that by announcing his candidacy now, well ahead of DeSantis’s expected announcement sometime next spring, he makes it harder for DeSantis to rate. This is especially true if DeSantis is doing his job, which is running the government of the state of Florida. Governing the state of Florida is a television channel-changer, ratings-wise.

The power of Fox News to influence the outcomes of GOP primaries can be decisive. Trump probably cannot win the 2024 nomination if Fox News is determined to defeat him. But in order to defeat him, Fox News must have the permission of its audience to do so. And that was the real purpose of Trump’s announcement last night; to remind everyone that the King still rates and that ratings are king.

We’ll see.

One thing we know for sure: if Trump no longer rates, he’s finished.

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

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John Ellis

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