Media magic fades.

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What Trump's Anti-Muslim Campaign Reveals

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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Not only is Donald Trump’s call for banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. being widely condemned. It is also a losing campaign strategy, even if it has given him a consistent polling lead so far.

As Vox's Andrew Prokop reminds us, Trump thrives on media attention. Yes, many inflammatory things he has said find some support among Republican voters. But a lot of pronouncements, whether outrageous or mainstream, could find some support -- and lots of candidates are willing to make them. What moved Trump to the top of the polls and keeps him there is his utter dominance of the information environment. He's the only candidate most Republicans are hearing about.

Looking just at nightly network news, Trump has received about 33 times as much coverage as Ted Cruz has so far this year. Thus it's more surprising that Cruz is still relatively close in the polls than that Trump leads in them. 

Poll respondents rarely choose a candidate they've never heard of or have heard little about. So for most Republican voters, the choice they've been asked to make is more a referendum on Trump than a choice among several Republican contenders. 

The challenge for Trump is that he's in a Red Queen race: As time goes on, he has to do more and more to get the same amount of attention. 

Back in the summer, when most Republican presidential candidates were occupied by the "invisible primary" competition for the support of major party actors, Trump's ability to dominate the media was relatively easy: Most candidates weren't focused on the public side of the campaign at that point. 

When the debates began, this started to change. Trump typically lost a little steam after each of those events because they generated publicity for the other candidates. But he has proved skilled at moving the spotlight back to himself, quickly rebounding in the polls to about 30 percent or so in Republican trial heats.

As the primaries and caucuses draw nearer, the ground is shifting. It was no surprise that an Iowa poll is showing Trump falling behind. Voters there are being exposed to a more balanced flow of information. Other candidates are running TV ads, raising their profiles, and the campaigns are contacting people directly. Thus Trump has resorted to what the Spectator's Alex Massie called a "dead cat" ploy.

After the voting starts, the press will start to treat those candidates considered to have a chance as more or less equals. Even if Trump does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he'll be only one among a small number of serious candidates. He may still get the most attention, but it won't be 33 to 1. 

To keep the attention on him, his antics have to be wilder and wilder. Each time he goes over the top he risks losing some supporters, and solidifies the opposition of Republicans who were initially inclined to oppose him. 

It's a perfect strategy to produce early polling leads. When it comes to winning nominations, however, it's a loser. 

  1. Top candidates get more press. But a candidate can finish second or third, for example, and still get a surge of coverage. The press has an interest in keeping a contest competitive. 

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