Another day, another poll showing Donald Trump leading the Republican field for the 2016 presidential nomination and another round of hand wringing by political pundits baffled by The Donald’s staying power. The latest WashingtonPost/ABC national survey has The Donald trumping his nearest Republican rival Jeb Bush by a whopping 10%, 23%-13%. That’s a gain of 18% for The Donald in just under two months, while Jeb’s support has remained static. To be sure, the poll was in the field just as The Donald’s comments regarding John McCain’s war hero status hit the airwaves, so the impact of this latest contretemps may yet to be fully felt in the polls. Still, it is clear that The Donald is exhibiting surprising – at least to the punditocracy – staying power as measured in national surveys of voting-age adults.
Of course, we have seen these types of candidate boomlets before. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck documented this process of discovery, scrutiny and decline in their book The Gamble, the definitive study of the 2012 presidential campaign. But Trump’s “discovery” phase has exceeded those of his 2016 Republican rivals in terms of size and duration and, so far, he has sustained and even enhanced his support during the ensuing period of scrutiny.
It is tempting to attribute The Donald’s polling success to some combination of his personal characteristics and his stance on the issues. Perhaps, as some pundits contend, The Donald has tapped into a vein of deep-seated anger among Republican voters. From this perspective, his blunt talk and forthright stance on controversial issues like immigration resonate with a good portion of likely Republican voters. Perhaps. But there is likely a more prosaic reason to explain the Trump phenomenon: he is exploiting the media’s tendency to view nominating contests through the prism of campaign tactics and especially candidate personalities, a point I’ve made in previous posts. Trump has decades of experience in attracting and manipulating media coverage, and he had drawn on that knowledge and training to issue a succession of attention-getting statements that have consistently kept him in the media spotlight. In particular, capitalizing on the media’s focus on candidate personalities, he has turned the Republican nomination contest into a series of personality-driven feuds between Trump and leading members of what might be called the Republican Party establishment. The latest exhibit is Trump’s testy exchanges with South Carolina Senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, culminating in Trump’s decision to give out Graham’s cell phone number during a campaign stop yesterday. “I did it for fun and everybody had a good time,” Trump said during a Fox & Friends interview last night. No, he did it because he knew the story would lead just about every news outlet for the next 24 hours, which it did. Like him or not, The Donald has the media on a string, and they seem only too happy to help him exploit their own vulnerabilities.
Consistent with my argument, in a Monkeycage blog post yesterday Sides and Vavreck show data indicating that Trump has received a disproportionate amount of news coverage since announcing his candidacy. That has surely contributed to his rise in the national polls, much as I suggested in earlier posts.
But does the media have any choice in the matter? In a comment to my last post, Middlebury College student (and presidency seminar alum!) Becky Van Dercook asks, “My one question/comment regarding this post is although the media should be taking Donald’s candidacy seriously, do you think that they shouldn’t be engaging in the outlandish and offensive commentary that he is making at all? And if they do, how can the buffoonish …nature of his commentary be completely ignored?” My short answer is: no, they shouldn’t engage in his outlandish and offensive commentary and yes, they can ignore it. And they should. However, as I wrote in an earlier post, this does NOT mean relegating Trump to the entertainment pages. “Instead, journalists should take his candidacy seriously by pressing him on the details of his policy pronouncements, and helping the public understand the differences between the public and private sector. The sooner the media begins evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public, the sooner The Donald’s political bubble is likely to burst.” It’s that easy. When Donald seeks the limelight by saying something outrageous, bury the statement and focus instead on what really matters in a presidential campaign. If you absolutely must quote The Donald’s more outrageous claims, at least put them in some type of real-world context.
Put simply, the media makes choices about what constitutes “the news” and how it should be covered. There’s no reason why Trump giving out Graham’s cell phone number should have led almost every news story yesterday. And yet the political punditocracy fell all over themselves to report it.
How likely is it that the media will follow my advice regarding how to cover Trump? Not likely at all. That’s because it has little incentive to do so. As Robert Schlesinger (another proud Middlebury graduate and presidency seminar alum!) acknowledged in his US News column yesterday, “’I’ll be honest, I burst out in giggles of delight when I saw the Washington Post/ABC News poll yesterday showing that Trump had opened substantial lead in the GOP field – not because I believe he has even the remotest chance of becoming the GOP nominee (though that would be fun too) but because it guarantees at a least a few more days of Web traffic Trump-mentum.”
Schlesinger is not the only journalist not-so-secretly rejoicing in Trump’s staying power. Despite the media’s harrumphing and hand-wringing over Trump’s “sideshow” candidacy and how it detracts from a discussion of serious issues, most journalists are absolutely giddy that rather than having to write months of stories analyzing meaningless polls and rehashing stale candidate biographies (Hillary’s pantsuits anyone?), they instead get to wax indignant about The Donald engaging in blood feuds with his Republican rivals. What could be better for a profession that has seen its audience and profit margins dwindling for years? The Donald is the gift that, so far, keeps on giving!
Of course, it is worth remembering two important points. First, polls this early in the nominating process have very little predictive value in terms of forecasting the eventual nominee. Second, these are polls – not votes. To date, I know of no research indicating whether Trump has put together the infrastructure for an effective ground game in Iowa or New Hampshire. Political science studies indicate that the best way to get people to the polls is to contact them personally. This is particularly crucial in low-turnout affairs like the Iowa caucus. There’s no evidence as yet that Trump has developed the necessary organization to do this. So, for now, Trump is exhibiting a lot of sizzle. But we have yet to see any steak.
In the short run, of course, the lack of a campaign organization is not likely to dampen media coverage of The Donald. But the next time you see a political pundit publicly weeping over what The Donald is doing to political discourse in this country, pay no attention to those crocodile tears. The media loves The Donald almost as much as he loves himself. And they are more than willing to show their love by engaging in the endless self-flagellation that is the essence of covering Trump’s run for the presidency. Please, please, stop me before I write another Trump story!
Never mind. He just said something newsworthy. Thank you Donald! May I have another?
Addendum 2.29 p.m.: Greg Dworkin points to still another poll, this one in the field after Trump’s war hero comments, that still shows The Donald leading the Republican pack. So, the early evidence suggests his criticism of McCain apparently hasn’t hurt The Donald among Republican voters.