Blame The Media For Donald Trump's Rise In The Polls

Candidates' early poll numbers are tied to the amount of press coverage they get.
Mike Segar / Reuters

The Huffington Post announced last week that the site was relegating its coverage of Donald Trump to the Entertainment section. “Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow,” Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim and Editorial Director Danny Shea wrote. “We won't take the bait.”

The decision has invited no shortage of criticism, most along the lines of, “Shouldn’t it be up to the voters to decide whose campaign is ‘serious’ and whose isn’t?” Trump is currently leading the polls, the argument goes; media outlets have no choice but to treat him as the front-runner.

But that argument underestimates the role of the media in shaping public opinion. The media isn’t covering Trump because he’s leading in the polls; he’s leading in the polls because the media is covering him. It’s basically free advertising.

Check out this chart from political scientist John Sides at The Washington Post, which plots Trump’s poll numbers against the share of coverage he has received from major news outlets:

The Washington Post

As you can see, Trump’s poll numbers jump only after a period of sustained media coverage. “It’s tempting to think that each surge is somehow the result of each candidate’s idiosyncratic appeal to Republican voters,” Sides writes. “But a simpler explanation is this: when a pollster interrupts people’s lives and asks them about a presidential primary that doesn’t formally begin for months, a significant number of people will mention whichever candidate happens to be in the news these days.”

Each candidate gets a boost of attention when he or she announces a run for the presidency, but news outlets covered Trump’s campaign kickoff far more aggressively than those of the other Republican contenders. What’s more, Trump has continued to draw the attention of the media even after announcing his candidacy. That’s unusual: Coverage of a candidate tends to drop off after the initial announcement.

It’s not hard to see why Trump has been so successful in stealing the spotlight. With his signature comb-over, short temper and penchant for the outrageous gesture, he’s a walking media magnet. Trump plays on, in such exaggerated form it’s cartoonish, the media’s worst instincts ― its love of sensationalism, its desire for sound bites and its weakness for manufactured controversy. The media rewards clowns, and you couldn’t ask for a bigger bozo than Trump.

Those of us in the news business are faced with a quandary. When the reality TV star pulls one of his stunts ― for instance, releasing Sen. Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number ― do we cut off the oxygen and refuse to cover the story, or cover the incident in the hope that it helps expose Trump for the buffoon he is? As Sides’ analysis shows, it’s hard to know whether it’s the right call to cover anything Trump-related, especially since even negative press propels him higher in the polls.

Gabriel Arana is senior media editor at The Huffington Post.

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