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Donald Trump rarely admits he’s wrong. But he seemed to do just that, saying his decision to skip the Fox News Republican debate cost him a win in Iowa.
“I think it could have been the debate,” Trump said during a press conference in Milford, N.H., late Tuesday ahead of next week’s primary in the state. “I think some people were disappointed I didn’t go [to] the debate.”
The billionaire New York real estate developer led the polls ahead of the Iowa contest, despite pulling out of the Jan. 28 debate because of his Twitter-fueled feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and the network’s chairman, Roger Ailes. Trump now appears to be considering that a miscalculation in his populist run for the White House.
His second-place finish to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz surprised political analysts, as did him squeaking by a surging Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who came in third. (A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll on Jan. 30 found Trump leading Cruz by five points.) Trump is still seen as the top contender to win next week’s New Hampshire primary.
Though Trump has persisted in his familiar rantings against the press — complaining to his nearly 6 million Twitter followers about the media’s “unfair treatment” of his “longshot, great finish in Iowa” — he may be toning down his attacks on top-rated Fox News. He appears to have taken a first step toward an attempted detente when he reached out to Ailes in an early-morning phone call after the debate. A person familiar with the call told The Hollywood Reporter that the conversation was short, yet cordial — but provided no other details about what was said.
Still, that doesn’t mean Trump isn’t continuing his Fox News assault. Asked during the New Hampshire press conference about holding a highly publicized fundraiser at the same time as the Fox debate, Trump said, “If I had to do it again, I would do the exact same thing.”
A Fox News spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday night: “Roger never wavered in his staunch support of Megyn — anyone who knows him understands that’s exactly who he is. We’re happy to let others make the decision about who won.”
Certainly Trump is not immune to the narrative in the wake of Iowa among political insiders, including several pundits on Fox News’ caucus night coverage, that questioned the wisdom of his decision to ditch the debate.
“If Trump hurt himself by not debating, it’s not because he dissed Fox, it’s because he didn’t debate,” notes author and political correspondent Jeff Greenfield. “Voters just don’t like arrogance beyond a certain point. Although, so far, they haven’t seemed to mind Trump’s bluster.”
Indeed, Trump’s hyperbolic campaign — one that he has waged on social media — has served him well. As he put it recently at a rally in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
He has upended the rules of political campaigning, running on the force of his personality and eliminating traditional media gatekeepers who in the past have molded the narrative.
“Without Twitter, I don’t think Trump would be a viable candidate,” says Nicco Mele, the former digital guru for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign who now serves as the Wallis Annenberg chair at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. “He essentially announced his candidacy on Twitter. He’s used Twitter to really intensely control and dominate the media cycle. It’s kind of a new world order for traditional media and the public with trying to understand what it means to be in a dialogue with the public.”
But for all the ways social media has disrupted the political system, television remains a powerful force. And when the Republican race tightens, Trump might find that he increasingly needs the exposure that television affords. And if Trump remains a sought-after television news get — even while he is ubiquitous — Fox News also has considerable reach and influence.
The network’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in Iowa — anchored by Kelly and Bret Baier — peaked at more than 5 million viewers and averaged 3.4 million viewers for the night (from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET). (CNN bested Fox News in the 25-to-54 demo, 1.2 million viewers compared with 928,000.)
In January, Fox News marked 14 consecutive years as the most watched cable news channel and finished the month as the No. 2 ad-supported cable network in primetime behind only ESPN.
Trump has assiduously courted the Fox News audience, appearing on the network more than 134 times since he kicked off his campaign in June. In fact, Trump made his 135th appearance on Fox News on Tuesday night when he appeared on Sean Hannity’s program to discuss Iowa, New Hampshire and, briefly, his beef with Fox News.
As he looks ahead to the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9, Trump is being Trump: “I love this place. I think I’m going to do great here.”
6 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Trump called Ailes after his loss in Iowa. In fact, Trump called Ailes after the network’s Jan. 28 debate.
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