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Commentary: Trump needs TV ratings more than VIP endorsements

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on Nov. 15, 2022, in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump announced that he was seeking another term in office and officially launched his 2024 presidential campaign. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

Declaring one’s candidacy for the presidency two years before the election, as Donald Trump did Tuesday night in a lethargic speech long on fabulism and short on memorable phrases, is a sign of weakness. Candidates launch their bids for the presidency early when they know they have a lot of ground to make up. Does that mean the Republican nomination is beyond Trump’s grasp? Hardly. Even with prominent Republicans turning against the former president, he still possesses one of the most powerful weapons in politics: the ability to attract audiences to conservative news media.

The conventional wisdom about presidential campaigns has long been that candidates who are first in for contested nominations typically lose. President Joe Biden waited until late April of 2019 to announce he was running for 2020. Hillary Clinton waited until mid-April 2015 to make her 2016 run official. Contrast that with former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who by the time Clinton announced her campaign was already two years into an exploratory campaign.

Knowing that history, why would someone like Trump launch his bid so soon? One reason is that we’re in the “invisible primary” stage of the process, in which candidates vie to capture the support of influential party figures, including partisan media. Longshot candidates need to find some way to convince those party influencers to take them seriously, and one way is to stay in the news.

This is even more important for Trump now that his standing among high-profile party figures is faltering. Leading Republicans in recent days have spoken out against Trump’s election bid. More importantly for Trump, he can no longer count on the zealous support of conservative media: Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has mocked the former president in recent days while praising Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Ron “DeFuture” proclaimed the Murdoch-owned New York Post on its front page the day after the midterms.

The Murdoch rejection could have further galvanized Trump to prove that whatever his prospects in November 2024 (and whatever damage he may have done to Republicans in November 2022), he is still alone in his ability to generate television, radio and online audiences. While many in conservative media hope to see Republicans win elections, they also have a vested interest in whatever — whoever — will generate big audiences.

As he seeks the nomination, Trump will need to demonstrate that he is the ultimate Republican newsmaker. That pressure is also probably why we have seen him become increasingly extreme in his rhetoric, coming closer to fully endorsing QAnon conspiracy theories and falsely claiming election fraud in the midterms even when the candidates involved responsibly conceded defeat.

It might work, at least when it comes to recapturing the support of Republican media and party figures who are afraid to take on the talk-show hosts and cable networks. Fox News did cut away from Trump’s lengthy speech Tuesday evening, but mainly to go to analysts in the studio who praised the event. Trump might have lost the unconditional backing of Fox News, but he will continue to get airtime as long as viewers tune in.

Whatever that says about Trump’s weakness and his capacity to recover from it, the whole episode demonstrates the power of conservative media within the party. But a party that allows ratings to drive political decisions will find it hard to get elected and almost impossible to govern.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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