(Charleston, West Virginia) – Happy New Year! As of today, I begin my fortieth year in mass media, much of that time spent covering politics at the local, state, and national levels. The year 2016 was like no other. One of the main reasons it was so fascinating is because so many people in the mass media business got it all wrong. Why did that happen? Let’s “brunch” on that this week:
“Bush League” – One of the first clues that this was going to be an “outside-of-the-box” year politically was what happened to former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL). He was the legacy candidate with name recognition, a solid resume, the most money, and the biggest organization. And there was the potential of a “Bush v. Clinton” rematch to atone for 1992. This race had it all. Yet, after South Carolina (only the third primary or caucus in the country), Bush was done. But the press missed the big story here and in the Clinton campaign, too) This wasn’t just a rejection of Jeb Bush; it was a repudiation of legacy and insider politics - a repudiation the likes of which we’ve never before seen in the United States.
“Trump ‘Trumps’ Publicity”—For all of its flailing at Donald Trump, the media was more like a high-wind, fanning the flames of a forest fire! Remember, even before the primaries began, Trump was getting a grossly disproportionate share of the publicity. There were 17 Republican candidates, but he was siphoning all the oxygen out of the room. This trend started from the day he announced, and continued through the debates and primaries and even through the general election. In many ways, the mass media was Trump's enabler, and he was more than happy to give them material. It turns out that was gold.
“Just Win, Baby!” – When coaches would ask the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis for advice, he would simply say, “Just win, baby!” That seems simplistic, but there is an old saying that winning is the best deodorant. Despite whatever flaws one might have, continuous winning gives a sense or momentum and inevitability. Trump was a strong second in Iowa; he won New Hampshire; and, then he won South Carolina. He then took eight of the next twelve contests, through Super Tuesday. And regardless of whatever he said - however provocative and outrageous - he kept winning. Trends matter; and - by and large, the media missed it. Many reporters and analysts I know firmly believed Trump would eventually trip and fall. (I thought the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes in October would be that moment, but I was wrong, too.)
“Record Debate Audiences; Record Turnouts” -- Another trend that should have received more coverage early on was crowd size. Trump was attracting huge crowds, including 40,000 people in Mobile, Alabama. Democratic upstart Bernie Sanders was also attracting huge crowds of 30,000 in Wisconsin and Oregon. Hillary Clinton’s crowds were far smaller, and considerably less passionate. I noticed this very same phenomenon in 2008, when she ran against Barack Obama: Her crowds were starkly smaller and less excited. I wasn’t the only one in the press pool who noticed this; yet it got scant coverage. But all through the 2016 primary season, there were two crucial phenomena at work: record debate viewership and ratings; and record turnout in almost every state primary or caucus. Trump was attracting millions who were disengaged from the political process. These were clues that Trump could really win; yet few saw it coming.
“The Bernie Factor” -- I have long mentioned what I deem the similarities in the appeal of Trump, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). While they are bookends of the political spectrum, they represented a lot of the same rebel, outsider, speak-from-the heart appeal. They worked without scripts or the safety net of a teleprompter. People in both parties (and many independents) found it engaging and refreshing. A lot of people - including friends in the national media - thought I was nuts when I kept calling Trump and Sanders “two sides of the same coin.” Sanders nearly beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination; and if many national pundits had agreed with me, they would have seen the possible Trump path to the White House. Back in February, 2016, I kept saying in interviews, “Trump could win this whole thing,” but a lot of people I told did not take me seriously.
“The ‘Trump Titanic’” – Trump can be his own worst enemy. Often what he says or tweets generates negative headlines. First, it was the wall on the Mexican border; then it was the total ban on Muslim entry into the U.S.; and, then it was his on-air spat with Megyn Kelly about Rosie O’Donnell, in the first Fox News debate. Every time these controversies happened, the prediction was that Trump would plummet in the polls and he would implode. But seemingly he defied gravity, and his poll numbers often increased. He was the Titanic that kept hitting the iceberg, yet never sank!
“My Analysis” – When I talk about the lessons the news media needs to learn from this election, I certainly include myself. As you may recall, I predicted Hillary Clinton would win the Electoral College, 272 to 266 over Donald Trump (a one-state margin). I correctly picked 47 of 51 states and the District of Columbia. I was only wrong about Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin (the last three of which decided the race for Trump). As a native of Wisconsin - and someone who still has a lot of family and friends there - I should have been more accurately in tune with the public mood. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, a lot of media mistakes are due to not listening to “people on the ground” about what matters most in their lives.
Where do you think the press went off the rails? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.
© 2016, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.
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