By Jonathan Easley and Ben Kamisar - 12/09/15 07:28 PM EST
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJeb Bush: Reports of father supporting Clinton were 'inappropriate' Trump: I have 'very good' marital history Report: Trump Foundation lacks proper certification MORE is again dominating the media’s coverage of the presidential race, frustrating his Republican rivals who can’t gain traction for their own campaigns.
Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States provoked wall-to-wall coverage, even though it has little chance of becoming U.S. law and has been repudiated by Democrats and Republicans alike.
The constant media attention has been the main ingredient in Trump’s lasting popularity. It has contributed to keeping him well ahead of his rivals in national presidential polls and surveys of states with early primary contests such as New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Even negative coverage can be a boon to Trump, helping to firm up his base of supporters and communicate his wildly popular brand of straight-talking, anti-establishment conservatism that he punctuates with unapologetically outrageous statements.
Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from the U.S. came at a point when his media coverage had faded. Prior to those comments, the number of times he was being mentioned on television compared to other candidates was at its lowest point in months, according to data compiled by The GDelt Project, which monitors news coverage.
And it came on the heels of a poll in Iowa that showed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) surging past Trump to claim his first lead of the cycle in an early-voting state.
Many Republicans viewed Trump’s proposal as a calculated effort to recapture the spotlight and stake out the far-right position on an issue that animates the base.
They believe the media has fallen into his trap.
Trump “knew that by saying that, it would provoke a response,” former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye said. “Smartly or cynically, he knows the best way to deal with bad poll numbers is to create another outrage du jour to redirect our focus.”
Trump’s media dominance is hurting the other candidates who have to spend valuable campaign dollars on ads that have, for the most part, produced only small returns on investment.
Trump has spent only $300,000 on a series of radio ads in early-voting states, a stunningly small amount for a candidate who has spent months atop the polls.
By comparison, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a supporting super-PAC have spent more than $30 million on ads so far this cycle. Bush’s poll numbers are in the single digits.
But there’s little reason for Trump to spend on additional advertising when he’s already on television at all hours.
Following Trump’s proposal Monday — which was nothing more than a short paragraph released by his campaign in a statement emailed to reporters — he did an interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. He then received coverage of his rally later that day from every major cable news outlet.
Trump followed that up with phone calls into shows on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC and CNN, some of them lasting a half hour or more. MSNBC replayed its phone interview with Trump later in the day.
Republicans see a double standard in Trump coverage. No other candidate has a standing offer to call in for interviews, particularly on the Sunday news shows. But Trump — who pulls massive ratings for the networks — does that regularly from Trump Tower in New York City.
“The [media and Trump] are obsessed with each other to the detriment of the other candidates, and thoughtful voters, frankly,” Gail Gitcho, a former spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign, said in an email. Jindal dropped out last month.
That frustration is also boiling over once again among the GOP contenders who have long taken issue with the media’s focus on Trump.
This week, Bush scolded reporters in New Hampshire, saying that his proposals to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and deal with Syrian refugees were being ignored.
“He’s playing you guys like a fine Stradivarius violin,” Bush said. “This is what he does. He’s an expert at this. He’s phenomenal at garnering attention.”
And businesswoman Carly Fiorina, another GOP candidate, directly accused Trump of floating his controversial proposal because of the poll that showed Cruz passing him in Iowa.
“He’s an entertainer,” Fiorina said in Atlanta on Tuesday. “And the media goes along with it day after day.”
She added that Trump made his proposal “because Ted Cruz had a good week.”
Those are sentiments shared by many conservatives, who worry that one of the most experienced field of candidates the party has ever put forth is being wasted by the media’s obsession with a showman leveraging his unique set of skills to hijack the process.
The explosive comments tossed aside the gun control debate and the focus on the terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif., which had dominated news coverage in the days before.
“The nation was hit by a terrorist attack less than seven days ago. For five days, the country and its press focused on the killers,” Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said on her Tuesday night show.
“On the sixth day, Donald Trump decided he’d like to get back into the media headlines.
“It was all Trump, all the time across almost all the media,” Kelly continued. “Do you remember terror?”
Still, Kelly acknowledged that she opened her own show with an extended segment that focused on Trump’s Muslim remarks.
The sum total has media giants, and even some of Trump’s rivals, lauding his mastery of the media.
“The fact that Trump now owns the media — and this episode is just more proof of it — is one aspect that has everything else in this campaign turned upside down,” said conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh on his Wednesday show.
Armstrong Williams, a close friend of Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson who hosts a conservative political radio talk show and owns several television stations, said Trump is just playing the game better than anyone else.
“He’s the front-runner and he’s surging like never before, and the media doesn’t know what to do with him, so you can’t blame him for getting headlines for saying outrageous things,” Williams said.
“But you can blame him for preying on the fears of an electorate that’s fearful of what it’s seen in Paris and California in this season of terror.”