Donald Trump’s utterly unexpected dominance of this year’s Republican primary process is the result of Mad Men politics. I am referring to the popular TV series about Madison Avenue admen, and not to the oft commented-upon phenomenon of the anger that bubbles through Trump’s campaign (although that is a factor as well). The media created Trump the Frontrunner and in doing so hijacked the Republican nomination process.
I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I believe he will lose convincingly if he is the Republican nominee. I also think he would be a terrible president if he somehow beats Clinton in November. But I have no animus towards the man. He is a very successful real estate developer and TV personality. And although he is clearly a narcissist, I believe he is basically a decent human being. He’s just not qualified to be president of the United States, in my humble opinion.
But what does trouble me is the extent to which his winning campaign is ultimately a creation of the media. There is a thought provoking analysis in The New York Times today which estimates the amount of “earned media” Trump has garnered since announcing his run for president. (The NYT publishes a lot of nonsense in its editorial pages, but it is sometimes an important source of reportage.)
The article defines Trump’s earned media as “news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media.” It goes on to note that “earned media typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign.”
In so-called “bought media”, or paid advertising, Trump has spent less than any other major candidate, except for Ben Carson. Through February, his ad spending totaled $10 million, compared to Jeb Bush’s $82 million and Marco Rubio’s $55 million.
But in earned media, Trump dwarfs all other candidates by a figure I find astonishing. His earned media is estimated at $1.898 billion. The next closest Republican is Ted Cruz, with $313 million, followed by Jeb Bush with $214 million. John Kasich’s figure is a mere $38 million. The total for all Republican candidates other than Trump is $1.159 billion. Trump’s free media is almost double that of the rest of the entire Republican field, and six times as much as his closest competitor.
These figures are of course mere estimates, based on comparing media exposure to paid advertising. But whatever they lack in absolute precision, the magnitude is obvious. And the key insight, that Trump has dominated the airwaves like no other candidate in history, is easily confirmed by personal observation.
Donald Trump is the most colorful figure in the field. The governors and senators running against the larger-than-life TV show host are kind of dull in comparison. And TV producers and newspaper editors are, like it or not, in the ratings business. Given the fierce competition for audience share, giving media coverage to The Donald is a commercial necessity.
But the monetary imperatives for the media to give Trump wall-to-wall coverage have an unintended consequence. When it comes to primary voting day, Trump has had overwhelming Top Of Mind Awareness versus the rest of the field. TOMA is a popular metric in marketing, where a given brand or product is the first thing a consumer thinks of when making their choices. And it’s been impossible in this campaign to ignore Trump.
I am pretty sure I am not the first person to bemoan the tendency of political reporting to resemble entertainment. Neither am I the first to comment on Trump’s dominance of the news cycle. I do not fault news producers for following the Big Story, it’s just their job. Nor do I want to suggest that all of Trump’s supporters are basing their votes merely on aggregate number of media impressions.
But this primary season does feel unprecedented. Never before has one candidate been the object of such overwhelming media coverage. Then again, there has never before been a candidate like Donald Trump. And he is running in a time of greater and yet greater media fragmentation and competition for viewers.
It is a genuinely serious quandary, with no obvious solution. In a free society, we can’t mandate that the media adhere to some arbitrary notion of “balance.” But we also shouldn’t pretend that informing the electorate is the media’s business. The media’s business is ratings, pure and simple. And there is a very real conflict between that business model and a healthy and well-informed democratic process.
I have no desire to denigrate Trump or his supporters. But when a businessman with no experience in office gets fifty times the media exposure as, say, the sitting governor of a major swing state, I can’t believe that gives voters the knowledge they need to make truly well-informed decisions. Maybe we would have been better served as voters with more media attention to national security threats such as Vladimir Putin than to endless commentary about the controversy of whether Trump’s hands are small or not?
When the media coverage of a single candidate literally drowns out all other voices, we run the risk of letting that same media anoint our candidates. It bodes unwell for our Democracy.