The Donald, who has probably garnered more free media than any candidate in history, has far outpaced Hillary, as well as his GOP foes. If that trend continues, and it ends up being Clinton vs. Trump in the fall, it could be an extremely tight race, and not the easy ride for Hillary predicted by many anti-Donald GOP establishment types.
Trump has spent many millions less on political advertising than such excised also-rans as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, as well as still-active rival Ted Cruz. But The Donald’s brand of ratings and traffic crack means he earned $400 million in free media alone last month — everywhere from cable news to Facebook to Twitter — and almost $2 billion over the course of his campaign, according to a New York Times-commissioned study.
Cruz, in contrast, has received $313 million in free media over the same period. As CNN’s Dylan Byers noted, The Donald has received more earned media than all his Republican rivals combined.
During the primary, Bernie Sanders’ minions rightly complained that his upstart run was getting short shrift coverage-wise from traditional media outlets compared to his establishment rival, Clinton. To a large part through savvy use of social media, Bernie has run much stronger than initially expected, but in that same Times-commissioned study, Clinton was tracked as receiving $746 million in earned media, compared to the Vermont senator’s $321 million.
In the last month, both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns have spent the most on advertising buys. I’m convinced that the disparity in dollars and cents in earned media explains much of Hillary’s success in Florida, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina and Illinois last night, despite the momentum Sanders had gained in a startling upset in Michigan last week.
Of course, one might argue that all the hundreds of millions of dollars in free coverage has hardly been all positive, especially in The Donald’s case. That might matter, perhaps — if this wasn’t the topsiest and turviest election season since the dawn of time.
Rightly, news organizations across platforms have been increasingly aggressive in digging into Trump’s checked, unchecked, and checkered, business career and taking aim at the fiery violence at his rallies. Social media platforms magnify these efforts by the millions. Trump and his growing tide of supporters appear to find such probes amusing.
And the coverage of Hillary’s White House run has hardly been all sweetness and light. Her record as Secretary of State — most notably, the ongoing controversy around the emails she kept on a private server — are not helping her garner votes. Still, the percentage of her negative earned media would doubtless be much higher if she was facing off against any “fill in the name” contender embraced by the GOP establishment, instead of the candidate who seems to have forgotten that those stupid protesters Washington, Jefferson and Adams—and that loser immigrant Hamilton — actually helped build this country back in the 18th century.
Smart media buys still do have an impact, although they do not begin to compare with the earned media effect. According to Kantar Media, an estimated $5.9 million in GOP-funded anti-Trump attack spots were spent in a buildup to Tuesday’s primaries on local TV and cable systems. Without that money spent, and the multiplatform megaphone of such spots as the one featuring women repeating verbatim various boorish misogynistic rants from over the years, Trump may have had an even bigger night. These spots were certainly a factor in John Kasich’s decisive victory in his home state of Ohio.
Still, the best barometer in predicting political success seems to be who is most adept at hogging the media spotlight. In the nexus of media and politics, I was taught to follow the money. So following the dollars and cents in earned media makes a world of sense.
Funny: If memory serves, “follow the money” was also the axiom cited by another American who wanted to make sure we kept things honest in this country. That’s what Deep Throat said to Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation.