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Is Donald Trump's Support a Media Bubble?

Buffoon. Blowhard. Bully. Media outlets have used all these words and more to describe billionaire media mogul Donald J. Trump. In fact, he’s probably been called more “b” words than Carly Fiorina. But is it possible that he is playing them? Instead of destroying his campaign, Trump’s negative media coverage has inflated his poll numbers and kept him above the rest of the Republican pack.

It comes as no surprise that Trump is receiving more media coverage than his poll numbers deserve. Journalists love to mock him, Democrats view him as an asset in attacking the GOP, and Americans love to see his caricatures on Saturday Night Live. Reporters know that the fastest way to get attention -- or “clicks” as we say in the trade -- is to put Trump in the headline.

This constant attention only props up Trump’s poll numbers, according to an analysis by polling expert Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.

Trump’s Media Bubble by the Numbers

According to Silver’s analysis, Trump alone has received 54 percent of headlines in news stories in the 2016 Republican primary, far more than any other candidate. The runner-up, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, has only garnered 8 percent, which translates to Trump receiving over 6 times more media coverage than Bush.

In most presidential primaries, there has been a one-to-one correspondence between a candidate’s share of media coverage and his share of the polls. If a candidate got 30 percent in the national polls, he usually received 30 percent of direct media coverage. Some candidates have dominated media coverage in the past, but they usually enjoyed a much greater polling lead than Donald Trump.

In the last six months of 2015, Trump hit a 28 percent average in national polls -- 32 percent, excluding undecided voters and candidates who have quit the race. Even considering this higher number, Trump’s media coverage (54 percent) still runs ahead of his poll averages by 22 percent.

The overwhelming majority of Republican voters remain undecided, and have a favorable impression of many different candidates. Trump has led in polls when voters pick their first choice, but his net favorability ratings are only in the middle of the pack. As Silver explains, Trump is “converting an unusually high percentage of potential supporters into people who list him as their first choice.”

It fits many narratives -- on both the left and the right -- to claim that Trump excites voters more than other candidates do, and it definitely is true to some extent. The media mogul has also impressively distanced himself from the other candidates. Nevertheless, his support has another explanation -- excessive media coverage. He may come up first in voters’ minds because of the way he has dominated news coverage of this race.

Quantifying Trump’s Support From the Media Bubble

Silver developed a model of this phenomenon, by plotting each Republican candidate’s share of media coverage since July against that candidate’s average net favorability rating among GOP voters (net favorability is the percentage of Republicans who view the candidate positively minus the percentage who view him negatively). These two measures predict a candidate’s poll numbers almost perfectly.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, for example, received a favorability rating of 61 percent among Republican voters, despite his measly 7 percent of media coverage. Silver’s model predicted he would receive 10 percent in the polls, and his actual average was 14 percent.

Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz also fit this model. Rubio’s 61 percent net favorability and 4 percent media coverage predicted a 9 percent poll number -- only one more than his 8 percent average. Cruz’s 49 percent net favorability and 5 percent media coverage predicted an 8 percent poll finish -- exactly his average during that time.

The model works perfectly for Trump. Despite his smaller 28 percent net favorability, Trump has received 54 percent media coverage, and a 28 percent poll showing, which is exactly what Silver’s model predicted.