In some ways, it’s surprising Donald Trump took so long to call one of his political opponents a pussy. He was repeating the words of a supporter, to be fair. But in a campaign whose success in attracting media attention relies on shock and awe, it was a logical step forward.
Familiar players took familiar battle stations after Trump’s profane tactical flourish. Journalists from myriad organizations tut-tutted his vulgarity while repeating his sentiment, if not his exact words. Talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh lauded Trump’s “performer’s instinct.” The mogul and his surrogates, asked to explain themselves on cable shows, deftly pivoted to a position of strength: Trump is battling the cultural rot of political correctness, and he’s having fun doing it.
No other candidate could cut that caper while making their final pitches to primary voters. But so goes the basic formula for Trump’s campaign—wash, rinse, repeat. After a disappointing second-place finish in Iowa drew questions about his saturation media strategy, Trump’s 20-point victory in New Hampshire breathed new life into it.
Regardless of how the upcoming primaries shake out, Trump may well be enshrining a media strategy that future campaigns envy and, if they can figure out how, replicate. The billionaire reality star has so far bet that wall-to-wall press coverage around large events, outlandish statements, and conflicts with the media can replace targeted ad buys and the multistate organizations typically built to engage potential voters. This spray-and-pray media strategy assumes that Trump’s message will find a receptive audience so long as it reaches enough people, even if it alienates millions more in the process.
“If you have a candidate who is as mediagenic as Trump is,” says Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, “maybe you never need to spend another dime on commercials promoting yourself.”
Trump-style media managing is a unique model for pursuing the highest office, and best of all it’s cheap. It also holds the potential to open a new chapter in the decades-long story of politicians leveraging celebrity to captivate the media. The question now: Can it be duplicated?
“I do think that Trump’s success in this arena, and with these unorthodox tactics, will inspire other candidates in the future who may be coming from non-political backgrounds,” says Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor who’s authored books on presidential debates and celebrity in politics. “If he can play the media so effectively, I can too … He may be one of a kind. But as Reagan opened the door for candidates with non-traditional political profiles, Trump may also be opening the door for something we can’t foresee yet.”
Enticing as Trump’s strategy may be, his genius would be hard to replicate. No current politician oozes his made-for-TV conflict and social media crudeness. What’s more, Trump’s arrival comes as changes to the media environment play to his advantage: it’s easier technically to cover him and harder financially to ignore him. The political dynamics of this particular cycle have also aligned to Trump’s advantage.
The Republican field remains sprawling and disjointed, for one, forcing news organizations to make difficult decisions each day on who deserves attention and resources. Amid that chaotic environment, Trump is a sure thing. And since his announcement in June, the frontrunner has drawn nearly half of all cable channel mentions of the originally 17-person Republican field, according to the GDELT Project. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has garnered almost two-thirds of TV mentions among Democratic candidates—the difference obviously is that she has just one real opponent.
This dominance extends across all media, and it’s inherently more effective than cliché political advertisements that flood primary state airwaves, says GOP media consultant Jim Innocenzi. “Anytime there is a newsworthy article, that article trumps paid advertising,” he adds. “If the candidate is saying something the electorate wants to hear, it doesn’t matter [if it’s inflammatory].”
Indeed, many of Trump’s more eyebrow-raising antics tap into an anti-establishment worldview cemented by talk radio and newly invigorated by social and digital media. When popular radio host Michael Savage sat down with Trump last week, for example, the former heralded Trump’s building prowess, called Marco Rubio “a lightweight,” and said that Jeb Bush “looks like he doesn’t have the heart for it anymore.” Even if radio hosts don’t openly endorse candidates, the format’s language and culture have laid fertile ground for Trump’s message.
“There’s a natural inclination for listeners to gravitate toward [Ted] Cruz or Trump, who are blunt and don’t care how the insiders think,” says Brian Rosenwald, a University of Pennsylvania fellow who’s working on a book about talk radio. “There’s a natural resonance there. And talk radio has been feeding it for three decades.”
That ethos has more recently been passed down to the likes of Breitbart.com, a digital empire that spouts the same economic nationalism Trump conveys on the trail. Such ideological fragmentation among digital outlets, coupled with the hypercompetitiveness in the mainstream media market, ensures that Trump’s message will always find a platform, even when journalists try to push back.
Take his on-again, off-again war with Fox News. Trump manufactured a scandal in the days before Fox’s GOP debate in late January, targeting anchor Megyn Kelly with ad hominem attacks for her allegedly biased questioning in a previous debate. Fox didn’t bow to Trump’s demand that Kelly be replaced, so he skipped the debate and held his own event.
MSNBC and CNN went on to temporarily carry Trump’s event live, drawing significantly higher viewership than their usual primetime programs (Fox’s audience still dwarfed them both). On Twitter, meanwhile, the mogul dominated candidate mentions tagged with #GOPDebate, despite not being on stage. One Breitbart article in defense of Trump’s decision argued that “the press as we know it is the most corrupt institution allowed to operate legally in America.”
Trump’s strategy does carry risks. He himself conceded that skipping Fox’s debate may have cost him votes in the Iowa Caucus. What’s more, rightwing media may not take well to being dissed by one of their own.
For Trump and any of his potential replicators, the most pressing question is whether saturation media coverage translates into votes. The mogul’s quantitative advantage over individual rivals will likely narrow as the GOP field shrinks. And early research suggests that his competitors—namely Cruz, who outmaneuvered Trump in Iowa—utilize social media more efficiently to engage potential supporters.
Between March and January, Trump was mentioned on social media almost five times more than Cruz, according to an analysis by George Washington University’s PEORIA Project. But roughly 5 percent of Cruz’s social media mentions included a link to his campaign’s website, compared to .1 percent for Trump. The metric may provide a rough gauge for how campaigns are converting social media volume into something more tangible.
“What every campaign really wants is not just people talking about them,” says Lara Brown, a George Washington professor who helps lead the project. “They want everyone on social media going to the campaign website. Once someone goes there, they get to a splash page where that person gives over their email address. And once a campaign has an email address, they essentially have an unlimited opportunity for engagement.”
On the one hand, this could help explain Trump’s disappointing performance in Iowa. But then what explains New Hampshire? Well, perhaps the magnitude of his media dominance can overcome any shortcomings in what he does with it.
“You could make the argument that, when you head to Super Tuesday, you really can’t do well with retail politics,” says Matthew Dickinson, a presidential historian and political scientist at Middlebury College. “So I’m not willing to write off his big picture, fly in, fly out saturation media coverage strategy.”
For now, Trump will continue relying on his cult of personality. And the media, while engaging in the occasional accountability piece, will usually come back with another where Trump is controlling the message.