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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 8: If You’re Counting on Earned Media, Better Have Some Message Discipline

Before the killings in Minnesota and Louisiana and then the massacre in Dallas seized national attention, it looked for a while like Donald Trump was going to stomp all over his fellow Republicans’ efforts to keep the focus on the Clinton email saga as it began to slip away. I wrote about the implications for the general election at New York:

It’s been noted far and wide that Donald Trump has managed to use the extraordinary force of his personality to dominate several news cycles with discussion of possible anti-Semitic imagery in his Twitter feed, the sunny side of Saddam Hussein, and other distractions. This has to have been extremely frustrating to Republicans who very badly wanted these same news cycles to be all about Hillary Clinton’s emails and FBI director James Comey’s censorious language about her conduct.

But there’s more to this problem than the opportunity costs of missing a chance to damage HRC. Trump is extremely dependent on earned media, to an extent we haven’t seen in a modern presidential candidate. NBC’s First Read today did one of its periodic updates of paid-media expenditures from SMG Delta, both nationally and in battleground states. And it’s pretty shocking:

“[T]he Clinton campaign and its allies are currently outspending Trump and his supporting groups over the airwaves by a 15-to-1 margin, $45 million to $3 million. And in the nine battleground states — now including Pennsylvania — it’s a 46-to-1 margin, nearly $43 million to $929,000.”

Speaking of Pennsylvania, remember all of the recent talk about Clinton not paying enough attention to the Keystone State? She’s still outspending Trump on P.A. media by more than a five-to-one margin.

Now, maybe this lopsided situation will be redressed somewhat thanks to Trump’s purported new fundraising success. But the fact remains that the candidate himself appears to hold paid media in low regard as a campaign resource.

That’s all well and good, and many political scientists think the value of paid-media spending is overestimated in presidential general elections so long as one side doesn’t have unchallenged command of the airwaves, making the other helpless to stop the bombardment. But Trump needs to get a move on to meet that challenge. And even if he does, his residual and habitual reliance on earned media means message discipline is absolutely crucial to his odds of victory in what is already an uphill battle. In a general election, he’s not going to be able to blot out the sky with fascinated and often positive media attention the way he did during the primaries. So his apparent inability to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em when it comes to commanding media attention is a real problem.

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