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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems’ Message Strategy Must Overcome Trump’s Media Manipulation

Julie Pace of Associated Press addresses a critical problem for the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination:

How can the wonkish Clinton counteract Trump’s finely tuned ability to command attention? Can she win the White House by letting Trump run on his terms, hoping his unorthodox candidacy wears thin with voters by November?…Or does she need to make a positive case for her own candidacy, something she has struggled to articulate during the Democratic primary?

It’s a tough question. Trump’s ability to manipulate the media is unprecedented in U.S. presidential politics. Back in March, for example, a New York Times/mediaQquant study found that Trump had received $1.898 billion in free media coverage, compared to $746 million for Clinton and $321 million for Sanders.
As a reality TV star, he has learned that saying outrageous things positions his campaign to dominate headlines and television coverage. He undoubtedly hopes that it creates an unspoken subtext that he is “in control” of the narrative, regardless of how stupid or malevolent are the substance of his comments. Low-information voters, he hopes, will mistake his media domination for authority.
Further, notes Pace,

“He’s good at dominating the news cycle and changing the news cycle to fit his purposes,” said Rick Tyler, former communications director for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s failed presidential campaign. “He has this ability to just change the trajectory of where the news is going by using amazing distractions that are just too delicious to pass up.”

if Sanders can somehow pull offf an upset and win the Democratic nomination, he is going to have the same problem. Although Clinton has received more popular votes than Trump, and Sanders has received nearly as many, neither one has received anything close to the media coverage Trump now takes for granted. Trump’s campaign is the ultimate test of the proposition that even bad media is better than no media.
The danger for the Democratic presidential candidates is that their ability to be pro-active in their messaging gets smothered by Trump’s outrage du jour. As Pace writes,

…Clinton has overcome her messaging struggles in the primary and is close to clinching the Democratic nomination. But facing Trump will be another matter, with his capacity to set the tone for the day in the morning through frequent tweets and calls into news shows, catching his rivals off guard and leaving them scrambling to catch up.

It’s possible to over-worry about all of this. A lot of Trump’s coverage is not just bad; It’s horribly negative and that has to hurt some over time. Millions of voters are going to see video collages of his most unflattering moments in the months ahead and it could have a devastating effect on his campaign.
There are a lot of options in between ignoring Trump’s daily tirade and blasting him with well-targeted soundbites. But what the Democratic presidential nominee must have is a disciplined, pro-active messaging strategy and a positive political identity that stands in stark contrast to Trump’s reckless and obnoxious persona.

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