Trump’s reality show turns politics on its head

As we kick off another US presidential-election year – Iowans vote in the first nominating contest on February 1 – there are plenty of things about the current primary campaign that could genuinely be described as “unprecedented”.

Most of them in some way or other involve Donald Trump, the controversial property mogul and TV personality who has dominated the race for the Republican nomination and may wind up as the first business figure to seek the presidency on a major-party ticket since Wendell Willkie in 1940.

While part of his appeal might be the persona of a “non-politician”, as a businessman, he’ll be watching the effect his campaign might be having on his personal brand. POLITICO magazine writes of a December consumer survey showing “the value of the Trump name… collapsing.”

Says the magazine: “It’s the kind of change that usually follows a big corporate scandal, like a product recall or financial misconduct. But in Trump’s case it’s a man’s personality that is in play.”

For now, though, that personality continues to ride a wave of populist anger and frustration among his supporters – who appear uninspired by their other choices in an unusually crowded field – amplified by a heightened sense of national insecurity since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

Trump topped polls of potential Republican voters for months – a candidate has never enjoyed the sort of lead he held in December and failed to win the nomination – and appeared seemingly immune to traditional campaign banana skins.

And as he raged against the media – leading to headlines such as “Trump Won’t Kill Reporters” in the Houston Chronicle – he used their reach and insatiable need for ratings to help keep the giant Thanksgiving balloon that is his campaign inflated.

At times, witnessing Trump’s pursuit of the nomination has been like watching some kind of surreal reality show. It’s not unusual to be both attracted and appalled at the same time. And for the media, it’s been impossible to look away.

When CNN hosted the last GOP [Republican] debate of 2015, it was one of the most-watched primary debates ever. Trump hasn’t just been dominating the Republican contest but the election as a whole, getting roughly 23 times the network TV coverage of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

That media fascination has led to a windfall for the self-funding billionaire as the mainstream media became, effectively, his PAC (Political Action Committee).

The Washington Post said recently that Trump has been running the “most cost-effective political campaign in modern history”, pointing to his relative lack of spending on TV ads and his wealth of free media.

As he dominated one news cycle after another, capitalising on what former Obama adviser David Axelrod called “an ever-escalating torrent of outrages”, Trump’s minimal outlays stood in stark contrast to other, establishment candidates.

Jeb Bush’s campaign, for example, has spent an estimated $50million on ads – nearly twice the next-highest spender, Marco Rubio – only to find himself heading into Iowa as the “least-liked” candidate in the race.

But even with Trump now rolling out his first paid TV ad and committing $2million a week to spots in Iowa and New Hampshire (which votes on February 9), it might be reasonable to conclude that the “normal” rules no longer apply. Ads simply don’t seem to matter in this campaign.

They certainly aren’t moving the needle the way they’d be expected to based on previous campaigns. Leslie Savan went so far as to ask in The Nation “Has Trump made political ads obsolete?”

Not quite yet, she asserts: “The importance of TV advertising may be in a slump, but it could well reassert itself later in the primaries, as the GOP field narrows, and in the general campaign. Hillary [Clinton] is likely to go for traditional, big-budget spots that try to 3am Trump (or Cruz or whoever).

“She is the anti-Trump, controlled, cautious, and about as spontaneous as a Galapagos turtle, but always on message. Trump, of course, is erratic, irrepressible, and unpredictable, but that is his message. It’ll be fire vs water, Godzilla vs Mothra, the Penguin vs Batman, fought out by two celebrities of roughly equal mega-wattage. How will advertising bottle what each candidate offers?”

Fighting for Iowa

Ahead of Iowa there are signs of a growing fight for Republican voters as other contenders, such as Rubio or Texas Senator Ted Cruz seek the mantle of the “non-Trump candidate”. Cruz, who appears to be running neck-and-neck with Trump in the latest Iowa poll, has warned of an avalanche of negative ads to come.

And sure enough, in the latest round of TV spots, nothing seems to be off-limits, from Adele to Bill Cosby. One Republican strategist told the New York Times to watch out for “even sharper elbows” and that “by the middle of January, everybody will have their pads on and helmets buckled”.

With the challenge for everyone other than Trump being to avoid alienating his supporters, Cruz announced he’d be skipping President Obama’s final State of the Union address this week, but has made the President’s moves towards gun control a centrepiece of his current fundraising message; a subject always guaranteed a good response from the base.

On the Democratic side – and you could be forgiven for forgetting there’s a tight race going on there, too – the latest ad from Hillary Clinton casts the former Secretary of State as the best option against whomever the GOP nominee might eventually be.

If ads have – so far – been less effective than in previous campaigns, the same can hardly be said for social media. But that’s a subject for another column.

*FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing regularly here about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.

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