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  • Nick Woods

A Presidential Catfight

Did running for President turn into a reality TV show? Tune in next year to find out.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden takes a selfie with a group of supporters after a speech in Pennsylvania, November 2016.

Picture the frenetic final weeks of a contested Presidential election in America. A media frenzy, dueling campaigns crisscrossing states armed to the teeth with cadres of consultants, social media managers, and staff encircled by peripheral flashbulbs from a salivating press core. The cameras remain trained on the main attractions: the candidates. Almost always smiling, with perfectly coiffed hair and focus-group-tested talking points, the men and women vying for the most powerful political office in the country understand now more than ever the Shakespearean contours of an election cycle. For them, all the world’s a stage. After all, the Bard famously remarked, “The play’s the thing.” To an exhausted electorate, it feels like a cross between Julius Caesar and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

There are many reasons why the Presidential campaign cycle feels more like a bloated episode of Survivor than it does a broader discussion on the policy differences of distinct leaders seeking to represent 330 million people. In an era of increased political polarization, these distinctions are even more critical, if less discussed. First, the introduction and mainstreaming of television was a technological advance that savvy political operators understood as a tool to reach more potential voters and to carefully craft one’s image without the nuance of bloated speeches and protracted procedural votes. Campaign ads, first introduced during the 1952 election, account for over half of presidential campaign spending each cycle. For every ‘urgent!’ email predicting the end of democracy if $7 isn’t contributed to your inbox throughout an election season, almost all of that money goes into cultivating a candidate’s appeal on television.

66.4 million people tuned in to the first televised presidential debate in 1960.

Another important reason is the everlasting election cycle. In an era before televised conventions and the 24-hour news cycle, it wasn’t always the case. Today, candidates barnstorm barbeques in Iowa and shake hands in New Hampshire almost eighteen months before the first ballots are cast in the 2024 race. In a period political scientists call ‘the Invisible Primary,’ making their case to voters isn’t just about floating, but sometimes flouting, key policy for personal charm. In no example is this more critical than the anticipated recent candidacy of Florida Republican Ron DeSantis. The powerful second-term Governor has seen his poll numbers sag, even before he has declared himself in the race. Evidence shows his politics have not become unpopular, but he has.

In one leaked recording obtained by ABC News from 2018, the then-Gubernatorial candidate was told to scribble “LIKABLE” in big letters at the top of his debate notes before a nationally televised showdown against his Democratic opponent. “I do the same thing because I have the same personality,” said the advisor on the tape. “We’re both aggressive.”

Deflecting criticism about his poll numbers during a recent trip to Tokyo, DeSantis was widely panned for his goofy expressions.

Opinion columnists have produced no shortage of critiques about DeSantis’ mannerisms, stature, and voice, adjudicating his fanciful nature like Tyra Banks to nervous contestants on America’s Next Top Model. The implicit personal characteristics of individual candidates have an outsized influence on voters’ preferences. Contenders are either ready for prime time or voted off the island. One prodigious individual has accelerated this tendency more than others.

While former President Barack Obama was dubbed the first “social media president” due to his staff’s skillful utilization of online, small-dollar individual donors on the internet to build a campaign war chest, Donald Trump was the first reality TV president.

President Trump at a rally before news cameras in Ohio, October 2020.

One night in Opa-Locka, FL, located in Miami-Dade County, just days before the fiercely fought 2020 election contested amidst the backdrop of an ill-contained global pandemic, incumbent President Donald Trump launched into a familiar fury of complaints and grievances about the disease that disrupted American normalcy. Surrounded by a swarm of voracious supporters defying the 11 pm county curfew and the cameras of the nation’s press corps, the crowd reacted and echoed a vehement refrain: Fire Fauci.

Referring to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who became a near-martyr to concerned citizens and conversely a punching bag for conservative opponents of increased restrictions; the President’s response was telling. We’re gonna wait and see.

“Let me wait until after the election,” he smirked as the crowd jeered. Could this be a shocking elimination? A familiar trope on reality network television shows capitalizing on suspense, the former Apprentice star reverted to the role that made him famous enough to be President. Find out…after the break! Four years earlier, it worked.

Before he swore an oath on the Bible and began his term, reports suggested he floated flying to his Inauguration in January 2017 on a helicopter, because it ‘makes for great TV.’ He called his election victory in 2016 “one of the greatest nights in the history of television.” He oriented his entire administration on the central idea of this attention, targeting voters as if they were key demographics in the Nielsen ratings. Live-tweeting news coverage was a morning ritual. No press was bad press, and eyeballs were king. If the reality host is often a diva, Trump was a prima donna. At a rally in 2021, he focused his attention on the row of news cameras in the back of the audience. “They miss me. They look at their bad ratings and they say, ‘We miss him.” He’s coming back for the Finale.

Trump spends hours watching himself on television, sometimes watching three channels at once.

Trump runs for a second season as host of the nation’s most acclaimed occupation, childishly attacking his opponents, like DeSantis, for lacking people skills and energy. “He needs a personality transplant,” the former President remarks, seemingly in a confessional on Big Brother. Americans will again watch the contest devolve into a ‘hand’ measuring contest. Replete with contestant eliminations, fourth wall breaks, and manipulative editing, will the next season of Who Wants to be President break all the rules? In the words of a former host, we’re gonna have to wait and see.


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