Donald Trump has received $1.98 billion (€1.76 billion) worth of free publicity from the media so far in his run for the U.S. Presidency. That calculation was made by mediaQuant, an American company that specializes in data about media coverage.

The value of the coverage Trump has received is more than twice that of the likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has received an estimated $746 million (€633.44 million) worth of media attention, according to figures supplied to The New York Times.

The free coverage Trump has received is worth nearly six times that given to his closest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). In America, candidates have to first win a series of early or primary elections to receive a party nomination to run in the general election. Cruz received an estimate $321 million (€285.47 million) worth of free media coverage.

Does Free Media Coverage Really Lead to Votes?

The value of this free media coverage is very unclear because it is hard to tell how such coverage actually influences voters.

A tabulation of U.S. opinion polls, compiled by Rear Clear Politics, found that if the general election was held on March 6, 2016, Clinton would have won by 6.3% and received 47.3% of the vote despite Trump’s advantage in free media. Some polls gave Clinton an even greater advantage; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll showed that Clinton had a 13-point lead, beating Trump by a margin of 51% to 38%.

Most American campaign strategists believe that Trump will win the primary, but could face a major defeat in the general election. The Wall Street Journal noted that Clinton has actually received around 8.6 million votes in the primaries, while Trump has received around 7.5 million, which means Clinton has already received 1.1 million more votes than Trump. The Journal also noted that Trump has only received around 35% of the Republican primary vote, which means 65% of Republicans actually voted against him.

These figures put the value of such free media attention into serious question. The additional attention may not be leading to additional votes or increased support.

Free Media could do a Candidate More Harm than Good

A major problem for Trump could be that the free publicity helps his opponents by giving their supporters more reason to vote. Much of the coverage about Trump in recent weeks has been very negative, focusing on allegations of racism and violent incidents at his campaign rallies.

Violence is actually very rare in modern American election campaigns, which makes such outbreaks major news. Such media attention can harm Trump among groups such as women – around 32.8% of American women have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. To make matters worse, around 23% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Trump.

That means the free publicity can hurt a candidate as much as it helps. Trump’s position as the media darling means that negative news about him gets broadcast far and wide. Even incidents that have little to do with Trump, such as pictures of a police officer leaving a Trump event in Chicago covered in blood, can harm him. The officer was injured while trying to break up a brawl between Trump supporters and protesters at a cancelled rally where Trump was not present.

The problem is that the public now associates such images with Trump. Many potential voters now view him as violent, or an instigator of violence, which definitely harms his election chances. Such an image also motivates Hillary’s voters by giving them a stronger reason to go to the polls to keep a violent man out of the White House.

Is Free Media more Valuable than Traditional Campaign Spending?

Trump’s success raises a more interesting question: Can Free Media be more effective than traditional campaign advertising? Some of the figures compiled by The New York Times seem to indicate just that.

The candidate who spent the most on campaign advertising was Jeb Bush, former President George W. Bush’s younger brother, who dropped out of the Republican contest after attracting a small number of votes. Bush spent $82 million (€72.92 million) on traditional advertising, while Trump spent $10 million (€8.89 million). Bush also received around $214 million (€190.32 million) in free media.

The other massive spender on campaign advertising, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), was also forced to drop out after he lost the Florida primary to Trump. Rubio spent around $55 million (€48.91 million) advertising and received $204 million (€181.42 million) worth of free media.

mediaQuant’s figures indicate that free media can be more effective than traditional advertising if you accumulate a great deal of it. Trump had to accumulate a tremendous amount of free media in order to get around 35% of the vote.

This means that the Free Media strategy can only work for a candidate who is already a celebrity such as Trump. It also remains to be seen if such a strategy is sustainable.

A danger Trump faces is that Hillary’s Free Media will grow as the election approaches and his may shrink. Hillary is as big a celebrity as Trump, and just as big a controversial figure. Clinton is also capable of raising vast amounts of money to spend upon traditional advertising – she had raised $188 million (€167.19 million) for the election as of Feb. 20, 2016 – and some news articles indicate her campaign plans to raise more than $2 billion (€1.78 billion) for the election (more than both candidates spent in 2012).

It is not clear how much Trump can raise, but given the friction between Donald and major Republican donors, it is far less than what Hillary can accumulate. Trump has vowed to spend around $300 million (€266.8 million) of his $4.5 billion (€4 billion) fortune on the campaign, yet that means Hillary could still outspend him by a ratio of around eight to one.

Therefore, 2016 is going to be the year in which the Free Media campaign strategy gets put to the test. Will it change the way electoral campaigns are staged around the world, or simply prove to be an experiment by one interesting candidate?


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