The cost of Trump’s free media gambit

Master marketer Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPost piles on: ‘Beyond debate’ Trump is unfit for office Clinton, Netanyahu have ‘in-depth’ conversation about US-Israeli ties NYT lays out argument against Trump for president MORE is at it again. The Republican frontrunner’s first TV spot has gone viral across cable news without the campaign spending a cent. It ran 40 times on various networks between Monday and Tuesday morning. As Politico reports, those airings would have cost $330,000 if run on the same channels as advertisements rather than portions of their programming. All this free media amounted to a “promotional coup." 

But evaluating the ad’s long-term impact is less simple. The goal of a political campaign – at least traditionally – is to win an election, and then to govern. His incendiary viral ad may help Trump win the nomination, but when it comes to life after the convention, it puts him in an impossible spot.

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At first blush, it would be easy to place the commercial – which features alarmist images overlaid with simplistic policy prescriptions – in the canon of other successful TV spots, such as Lyndon Johnson’s (in)famous Daisy ad. 

That ad, officially called “Peace, Little Girl,” aired a single time on September 7, 1964, during an NBC broadcast of Monday Night at the Movies. It featured a young girl plucking flower petals in a field. After counting each one, her voice is juxtaposed with a nuclear countdown and an earth-shaking explosion.

The terrifying ad, complete with ominous score, successfully positioned Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) as an extremist who couldn’t be trusted to judiciously oversee the nation’s nuclear arsenal. It alarmed Americans to such a degree that the Republican National Committee felt compelled to issue a statement (and spell out Johnson’s point for him): “This ad implies that Senator Goldwater is a reckless man and Lyndon Johnson is a careful man.” 

Just like Trump, Johnson received a great deal of free airtime. The ABC and CBS nightly news shows replayed Peace, Little Girl it in its entirety, making it the first television commercial to earn more news airings than paid ones.

But beyond the earned media fall out, the two commercials differ in many ways.  

The genius of Peace, Little Girl was that it gained so much traction without forcing Johnson to take any hard stances. The most you could say is that Johnson was anti-nuclear war, which wasn’t exactly a risky position in 1964. The implicit promise – that Johnson would not hurl the country into nuclear war – was fairly easy to keep (and rather beside the point if not).

Trump’s ad flips this formula. Its attacks are implicit, its promises unambiguous. He will “cut off the head of ISIS,” and take their oil. He will build a wall on the Mexican border and get their government to pay for it. He will stop Muslims coming into the country “until we can figure out what’s going on.” It’s a roadblock to moderation in the general election, and a punishing scorecard for a Trump administration.

Data backs this up. If he wins the nomination, Trump will need more than just the base to succeed against the Democratic nominee. The views espoused in the ad don’t help that cause. His stance on ISIS won’t meet much opposition, but his border policies remain controversial. 

According to a Monmouth University poll, less than half of independents (47 percent) and Democrats (31 percent) support building a wall on the Mexican border. The numbers are even worse for Trump’s immigration plan as a whole. Just 34 percent of independents and 11 percent of Democrats are in favor. 

The numbers on banning Muslims from entering the country are similarly unfavorable. According to a Washington Post-ABC News survey, 36 percent of the country supports the ban while 60 percent say it’s the “wrong thing to do. 

Johnson only hinted at policy. Even then, he positioned himself as the moderate and Goldwater the extremist. Meanwhile, Trump actively seeks the extreme, leaving a vast middle ground for his general election opponent. 

And that’s just the campaign. Consider the impact on a Trump White House.

Set aside the enmity he has earned with the international community. Even greater obstacles would wait at home. Recent history shows voters have little patience for broken campaign promises.

President Obama delivered on numerous pledges such as healthcare reform, yet his failure in other areas, such as the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, continues to face its fair share of critics.

President George H.W. Bush provides another cautionary tale. His “no new taxes” pledge left him little wiggle room in budget battles. When he signed a tax increase during his first term, his fate was sealed. By the next election, as his Assistant for Legislative Affairs Fred McClure put it, “they buried us with it.”

Take that experience and then transcribe its lessons onto a hypothetical Trump administration. He would take office indebted to a threefold agenda with serious obstacles to enactment. Each day that he failed to make good on his promises, his political capital would shrink. 

“Under-promise and over-deliver.” The adage is Business 101. In breaking it, Trump is racking up substantial political costs in exchange for relatively paltry financial savings. The ad a serious misstep from the race’s leading marketing guru. 

Hemmer is a U.S. News contributing editor and a research associate at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She is also host of the Past Present podcast. Follow her on Twitter: @pastpunditry.

Lucadamo is the lead policy analyst at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His work has been published in The Hill and Washington Post among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @tonylucadamo