Has the media helped Donald Trump’s campaign?


Following July’s Republican National Convention, we now know what has looked extremely likely for the past three months: Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s nominee for President and will face Hillary Clinton (who was also officially nominated recently) in November’s election.

Since entering the race back in June 2015, it feels as though Trump has constantly been in the news. It is as if he has been the most talked about individual in the world over the course of the last year. Researchers have analysed data from Google News and other sources and have found that, in the context of the American presidential race, Trump has commanded a strong media presence, in some cases dominating election coverage. Google News is regarded as a good indicator of both coverage and consumption value. It is computer-generated news service which takes content from thousands of different news sources.

Research by the Washington Post has found that between 15 June 2015 (the day Trump launched his candidacy) and 20 July 2016, Trump appeared on Google News’ homepage twice as often as his Democratic opponent, Clinton. Statistician Nate Silver from the FiveThirtyEight predictions website used Google News data to find mentions of Republican candidates in June-July 2015, the first month of Trump’s campaign. Trump was mentioned 46 percent of the time, far ahead of nearest rival in coverage, Jeb Bush, who trailed with 13 percent of mentions. The Internet Archive’s Television News Archive has revealed that Trump held the lion’s share of references on TV (43 percent). Bush, again Trump’s nearest rival for coverage, received 21 percent.

Last August, The Guardian presented findings from LexisNexis and the GDELT Project focusing on the first few weeks of the Trump campaign. It can be observed from these sources that Trump did not dominate all branches of the media. He did, however, continue to receive a substantial level of attention compared to most of his opponents in the Republican primaries. Along with Bush, he was the subject of twice the number of news items than other rivals.

This media attention in the initial weeks of his campaign might have acted as a boost for the Trump campaign, giving him early momentum and a lead in the polls which he sustained throughout the rest of the primary season. The website RealClearPolitics shows aggregations of support received by each candidate from numerous polls. Trump’s  started to rise in the RCP averages in mid-late July and into August, establishing a solid lead he only relinquished for a brief spell in November when retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson peaked, but quickly faded, in true “flash in the pan” style.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has been omnipresent in the news cycle. As someone who is outspoken, confident and brash, he is a character who will always attract attention. Going into this year’s presidential campaign, he had the advantage of being a high-profile figure known to millions of Americans from his years as a celebrity businessman with an extravagant lifestyle and later as the host of the American version of The Apprentice. The same couldn’t be said about former governors Jim Gilmore or George Pataki (how many people outside of Virginia and New York had heard of them, or knew they were running for President?)

According to the “shortcuts” theory in political science, voters, especially when faced with multiple choices, make shortcuts when choosing how they will vote as they have neither the time nor the motivation to study and consider the various options available to them. They, therefore, rely on certain shortcuts to make their decision such as a candidate’s stance on a particular issue, their personality, previous experience or who “sounds” like a credible choice.

Trump’s tough line on immigration and terrorism, his political outsider status (he has never held public office) and bold, confident personality may have been some of the shortcuts used by Republican primary voters who turned out for Trump instead of other alternatives in a crowded Republican field.

To what extent can we attribute Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination to the generous amount of media coverage he has received? Of course, it’s difficult to say. My feeling that, due to his capacity to create headlines and controversy, his name recognition, his political outsider status and his ability to tap into many voters’ concerns, he would be in the same position today had he received less media coverage. Moreover, he has been able to use the Republican primary debates and his extensive following on social media to reach potential voters.

Whether all of this will help him in November remains to be seen.