Donald Trump in Nevada last month as part of his campaign for nomination as the Republican candidate for US president
Donald Trump campaigns in Nevada © AP

The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination this week uttered a sentence he has never before used on US television: “I’m Donald Trump and I approve this message”.

With less than a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, Mr Trump on Monday belatedly released his campaign’s first television advertisement, beginning with his mandatory endorsement.

The 30-second advert, filmed in a grim, colourless tone, outlined his plans to place a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US and to build a wall on America’s southern border “that Mexico will pay for” — as tense music reminiscent of a crime drama played in the background.

More than six months into his campaign, this is the first time the real estate billionaire’s team has paid for a TV advert — a mainstay of most professional political campaigns — preferring until now to rely on the attention of the news media and the bullhorn of social networks instead.

The Trump campaign said it would spend more than $2m a week on TV airtime ahead of the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

“We have spent the least amount of money,” Mr Trump said in a statement released by his campaign. “I am very proud of this ad. I don’t know if I need it, but I don’t want to take any chances.”

Explaining the decision to pay to get his face on TV, Mr Trump on Monday told a crowd in Lowell, Massachusetts: “Honestly, I feel guilty. All these people [rival candidates] are spending all this money on ads.”

Despite predictions that his campaign would fizzle or flame out, Mr Trump has continued to lead the Republican nomination in all national polls, while his grip on the media has been just as solid.

The first Republican primary debate on Fox News — in which Mr Trump bristled at questions from moderator Megyn Kelly — attracted 24m viewers, a record for a non-sports cable programme. Subsequent debates on CNBC, CNN and Fox Business Network, where Mr Trump turned his fire on his fellow candidates, also hit records for those broadcasters.

While Mr Trump takes a special delight in attacking the media — frequently claiming at his thousands-strong rallies that the networks never show the size of the crowds — he adeptly uses the media spotlight to spread his message.

The magnetic attraction he seems to exert on audiences has created a self-fulfilling cycle: the more coverage he gets, the more viewers tune in and the more time outlets devote to covering his every utterance.

Even Mr Trump’s TV spot, which will play on local channels in just two states, has been given free national coverage on CNN and Fox News, which this week devoted significant time to discussing the first campaign advert as part of their news coverage.

“Getting earned-media versus paid-media is really one of the great skills of the modern campaign," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which promotes transparency in politics.

In this respect, Mr Trump, an established name and reality TV star, has huge advantages over his opponents.

He dominates US news coverage online, on TV and in print, according to MediaMiser, a media monitoring group. By December he averaged nearly 14,000 mentions a day across the formats, compared with 8,100 for Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate, and 6,200 for Ted Cruz, his closest Republican rival.

But it is on days that Trump makes the news that his control of the media is most evident. When on December 7 he called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, his mentions jumped to 21,861. Volume nearly tripled to 60,266 the next day and peaked at 66,600 on December 9. That day, Mr Trump was mentioned in more instances than six other Republican candidates and two Democrats combined.

The rising tide of Trump coverage can also give a small boost to his rivals as they react to the front-runner’s positions. In the week Mr Trump made his comments on Muslims, Mr Cruz’s average daily mentions rose 40 per cent from the previous week while Jeb Bush got a 61 per cent lift. But that paled in comparison to Mr Trump, who tracked a 188 per cent rise.

Following the controversial statement, US TV news programmes and newspapers devoted more than 15 per cent of their coverage to Mr Trump, peaking at more than 20 per cent by the end of the week, according to Mediatenor, a media research group.

But Mediatenor also found that the tone of the Trump coverage also turned more negative, dropping from neutral on December 1 to more than 20 per cent negative by December 14. Mediatenor rates individual news reports as “positive”, “negative” or “no clear tone” and then calculates the average.

After Mr Trump appeared on the variety show Saturday Night Live, his Republican rivals were granted the right to appeal to individual NBC local affiliates for 12.5 minutes of free airtime on NBC in states where they had made campaign appearances. Yet Ms McGehee noted the equal time rule did not apply to any news programmes, even those such as The Tonight Show which were still considered “news informational”.

Ultimately, Ms McGehee said, Mr Trump’s ability to generate free coverage remained one of his most powerful tools, even as he began to dabble in paying for advertising.

“Trump has figured out that being outrageous gets him all the media he wants. Whereas the independent group supporting Jeb Bush is forking over millions to get out on the air, Trump has figured out how to get more coverage without spending a penny.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article