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Trump Seduces the Press, But Not His Party

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Yes, Donald Trump is good at grabbing media attention. But, no, this doesn't mean that the political system has changed and that candidates from now on will simply say whatever pops into their minds, regardless of what their party thinks.

Most political scientists believe that Trump’s polling success  -- which began in June and peaked in early September -- reflects his domination of the media. When Republican voters were hearing plenty about Trump, and little about the other candidates, they told pollsters they would vote for him.  Trump is still receiving the most attention. But most voters aren't paying close attention yet, and therefore are unfamiliar with the rest of the candidates. 

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones argues that the real-estate mogul's manipulation of the press is innovative. Trump and Ben Carson are willing to say things that more traditional candidates would regard as outrageous and politically suicidal, and journalists gobble up these statements. 

Drum explains:   

The difference is that most presidential candidates in the past figured they had to act at least nominally presidential if they didn't want to end up as ignored as Alan Keyes. But apparently the political media has changed. Reporters and editors are now as eager as any gossip show to cover obvious buffoonery, and both Trump and Ben Carson have ridden that wave.

I suspect that’s mostly wrong. The constraint in the past wasn’t that the media wouldn't cover the off-kilter pronouncements of presidential candidates. It was that the contenders themselves would not make these comments. They wanted to please their parties, which would not nominate people who were not considered serious. 

So are the old constraints now gone? Can candidates say whatever they want and be rewarded for it? There are three possible answers: 

1. The parties are willing to nominate people they previously would have rejected.

2. Candidates can go around the parties and win a presidential nomination if their outlandish statements maximize press attention. 

3. Carson and Trump are pursuing a losing strategy.

The first of these possibilities has not proved to be correct: Party actors have not rallied to Trump and Carson, despite their strong polling numbers.

It’s still possible, though extremely unlikely, that going around the parties will work. We’ve never seen anything quite like Trump in nomination politics before. On the other hand, we have seen plenty of candidates with strong early poll showings but little party support fizzle once voters started paying attention. Name recognition eventually won't matter as much either when the GOP rivals become better known. We’ll just have to see.

Meanwhile, my money is on No. 3. 

  1. The causal claim is that media attention led to Trump's success in opinion polls, not that his polling numbers led to more press coverage.  It's difficult to prove this, but the evidence appears to point in that direction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net