Is Donald Trump's Support a Media Bubble?

Silver’s analysis provides a sort of proof that Trump’s media coverage is inflating his poll numbers. As Silver notes, “a candidate can potentially gain in the polls in the short term by increasing his media coverage, even if he potentially hurts his favorability rating. Trump seems to realize this.”

In the month of December, Trump received a whopping 70 percent of media headlines, even higher than his long-term average of 54 percent. This extra media attention is worth about 8 percent in the polls, according to Silver’s analysis, and that number is close to the amount his poll numbers have shot up in the past month -- putting him in the mid-30s instead of the high 20s.

As The Washington Post’s Paul Schwartzman and Jenna Johnson explain, the thunderstorm of Trump’s statements is not chaos, but the media mogul’s campaign strategy.

“While it may seem like a lurching, chaotic campaign, Trump is, for the most part, a disciplined and methodical candidate,” the Post writers explain. The media mogul tests his messages in real-time, tailoring his words to his audience. If the audience boos or is slower to laugh, he changes the subject. Trump also has an astounding consistency in his presentation -- using the same words and the same types of attacks (“low-energy”) in different settings.

In these ways, Trump has played directly to the media's obsession with his campaign, keeping the cycle going even as journalists tire of reporting on his antics.

Will It Work?

The success or failure of Trump’s media strategy is painfully hard to predict, according to Silver’s analysis. “A higher share of media coverage is correlated with a higher error in predicting a candidate’s eventual vote share,” the pollster noted. If Trump continues to dominate the media, the poll bubble may translate into a vote bubble. But it could burst just as easily.

Ted Cruz is surging in Iowa, and if the Texas Senator bests the media mogul in that first voting state, the result may be devastating for Trump’s support. Trump’s most consistent theme is that he is a winner, while the other candidates are each losers. If Trump loses the very first primary, will that weaken his narrative?

One fascinating question is whether Trump’s supporters will show up at the polls. As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy explains, “Many of Trump’s supporters are disaffected folks who are only marginally attached to the political process, (so) a good number of them won’t show up at the voting booths.” In polls that screen for likely primary voters, Trump tends to get smaller percentages of the vote. In the recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey, which used tighter screening than other polls, Trump trailed Cruz by ten points.

On the contrary, however, polls may be understating Trump’s lead. In some state primaries, voters do not need to have registered previously as Republican. In Iowa, they can register on the night of the caucus. In appealing to people who did not previously vote, Trump’s campaign could expand the Republican electorate in a manner which pollsters cannot predict.

The irony of a journalist featuring Trump in his headline while noting that journalists doing exactly that may be giving the mogul a political boost is not lost on me. But, if the media is so intent on stopping Donald Trump’s success, their best bet is to cover him less -- or just stop breathlessly searching for every angle on any Trump story. If journalists truly consider his candidacy revolting, they should refrain from giving him the coverage which artificially boosts his poll numbers.