Trumping the competition? Does controversial media profile lead to votes?

January 01, 1970

Just nine months ago the concept of Donald Trump winning a Presidential nomination for the US Republican Party seemed inconceivable.  On announcing the launch of his campaign he had less than 4% support in the opinion polls and lay eighth in the running for the nomination.

From non-runner to front runner
This week Trump's campaign to secure the Republican nomination received a huge blow from the results of the Iowa Caucus – effectively the first chance the American people have to say who they want to run in the Presidential election.  Trump – despite leading the national opinion polls with more than ten times the support he previously enjoyed – was beaten in the first poll by rival and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  Whilst this is not the end of the road for Trump, it is a major blow for someone who has consistently described himself as a winner to lose the first public ballot he has stood in.  
Trump's campaign has seemed deliberately provocative and raises the question as to whether media column inches really translate into votes; particularly at a time when politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are being accused of being out of touch with real people.  Donald Trump's campaign has even led to a Parliamentary debate in the UK as to whether the Presidential candidate should be barred from entering the UK, following comments made about ceasing all Muslim immigration into the US "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on".  

The UK media reaction – a slew of stories
The US election campaign usually heats up in the UK media after the candidates are formally nominated by each party, yet the involvement of Donald Trump in the process has seen a slew of national media stories in the last six months.  A search of the Nexis database of national newspapers in the UK over the last six months shows 867 stories that reference Trump in the same paragraph as the word "election".  In comparison, the same search conducted on Hillary Clinton's name (as front runner for the Democratic Party's nomination) reveals just 499 results.  The fact that Trump has generated so much more media interest than Clinton is all the more extraordinary when considered against Clinton's historical media profile as both a former Secretary of State and First Lady.  

UK national newspaper interest in Donald Trump peaked in December, the month when he made the controversial comments about US immigration.  Up to that point, media interest had been predominately about his bid for power, but in December there was a close correlation between the name "Donald Trump" and the word "petition".  In the month after Trump's immigration speech more than 500 articles in the Nexis database referenced both terms, demonstrating that, as the number of petition signatories grew, so did national interest in the story.


Media driving votes or votes driving media?
Like many politicians, Trump has been no stranger to other controversies.  From making derogatory remarks about his rivals (both Republican and Democrat) to comments about the Mexican people, the tycoon appears to be equally happy to offend everyone.  Yet not one single comment appears to have reduced his popularity amongst the Republican base.  In a world where politicians, particularly in the UK, will do anything to avoid courting controversy, Trump's success to date offers an alternative to spin and carefully selected soundbites.  

Of course there is no certainty that Donald Trump will win the Republican Presidential nomination, particularly after the result in Iowa.  There is some feeling that Trump could not win the national election in November 2016, which might explain his defeat in Iowa despite huge polling leads.  However his campaign is a stark lesson in how politicians can use the media to generate increased awareness in what can become a virtuous circle of publicity.  If this was the plan, it was a shrewd move that seems to have generated media inches, even if it does not result in votes.  The alternative, of course, is that Trump simply does not care what he says.  Either way, his presence in the election has shaken up what a year ago looked like being an election dominated by the political dynasties of Bush and Clinton.

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