Trumping the GOP Field

April 25, 2011
By S. Robert Lichter

The current GOP field of could-be, would-be and wannabee presidential candidates has been trumped by a new contender with enough celebrity wattage to put them all in the shade. A Pew Research Center poll released April 21 shows that Donald Trump is the most visible Republican candidate among both Republican voters and the general electorate. In fact more voters named Trump as the candidate they’d heard the most about than all the other GOP contenders combined.

This is hardly surprising, considering the burst of media attention that has accompanied Trump’s testing of the waters, and in particular his embrace of the birther controversy, with calls for President Obama to release his birth certificate. In a search of media hits derived from about 4,000 newspapers, blogs and television and radio stations tracked by, the New York Times “Five Thirty Eight” blog reports that Trump accounted for 40 percent of all coverage of Republican candidates in April; no other candidate gained more than seven percent of the coverage. (This search was limited to references that linked candidates’ names to their candidacies, to avoid coverage of topics such as Trump’s reality show.)

Trump’s conversion of news coverage into political visibility is consistent with scholarly research on election news more generally, which finds that voters tend to learn what the media tell them about campaigns. Because coverage of the horse race usually far outpaces coverage of policy debates, voters are usually far more able to correctly identify where candidates stand in the race than whatever it is they stand for. It is in also in the tradition of the election news during the campaign preseason, when it is too early for events to have a clear impact on primaries that don’t begin for another ten months, but not too early for journalists to try out storylines for the coming contest.

The media’s attention to Trump over the past month is a product of his own considerable publicity skills, as well as the media’s search for a new storyline, as Sarah Palin’s star power has faded a bit. Over the past six months, the search shows, Palin’s proportion of the GOP field’s coverage fell steadily, from 51 percent in November to 33 percent in January to 11 percent in April. Apart from Palin and Trump, the only candidate to exceed ten percent of the coverage in any month was Newt Gingrich, with 19 percent in March.

But there are competing forces involved in the media’s treatment of celebrity candidates like Trump. On the one hand, he makes for great copy. He attracts eyeballs and increases clicks, at a time when the mainstream media is moving from their old “give ‘em the news they need” attitude to an ever more desperate “give ‘em whatever they want” approach. Added to that is his willingness to court controversy (see the “birthing” debate), which has always been a surefire newsmaker.

On the other hand, national media journalists tend to be political insiders who look to other insiders as the most likely finalists when the candidate field narrows. That means they give the most credence to candidates who are sitting or past vice-presidents, governors or senators, who sit at the top of the political pecking order of political institutions. Thus, they may lavish attention on celebrities like Trump and fire-breathers like Michele Bachman and Ron Paul, they don’t really take them seriously as presidential candidates. But they are also waiting for someone to break out of the pack of traditional candidates who have so far attracted little followings outside the network of media and political elites. This group currently includes known quantities like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, as well as insider favorites like Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty.

So does all this mean that Donald Trump is just a “media candidate”? Of course – at this point they all are. It’s just that some of them are better at it than others. But the good news is that in a few months, the voters will replace the media as the primary sorting mechanism that gradually winnows out the presidential wannabees from the one who will be.