Donald Trump is basking in all the attention resulting from the possibility that he’ll run for president.
He was treated like a rising Republican darkhorse at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference. That was quickly followed by a media blitz and a the formation of a Draft Trump site, with a political operative in the key early state of New Hampshire. He told MSNBC that there’s a “very very good chance” he could say yes to a White House bid.
It’s all so entertaining — but is it really serious? Few pundits think so, but give The Donald credit for elevating his talking points beyond “The Apprentice” and his image off Page Six. And it’ll surely be grist for new material next month when he appears as the subject of a Comedy Central roast, marking the first time a presidential prospect has submitted to such an event since Hubert Humphrey was game for a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.
In the event that he actually does run, Trump may have to contend with the reality of media saturation: Overexposure.
Trump — who has indicated that he would decide by June — would enter with not just plenty of name recognition but a hefty dose of negative reaction.
Usually, candidates who jump into the presidential fray fight for name recognition, an increasingly difficult prospect as the audience gravitates to an ever-changing array of choices. It’s why, even after a marathon 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama still found it necessary to embed spots in videogames in the waning days of the race.
But the dynamics are much different for Trump. According to the U. of New Hampshire’s Granite State poll released Feb. 15, among the state’s likely GOP primary voters Trump has an unfavorable rating of 64%, the highest among all the prospective candidates.
He’s managed to be identified with the catchphrase “You’re Fired,” but in that vein pop culture doesn’t appear to have helped his Q score, the measurement used to rate public attitudes toward entertainment figures. Marketing Evaluations Inc., the Q Scores company, reports Trump had a 74% awareness among the total population but a positive Q score of only 11 in its most recent study in September. The average for a personality is an awareness of 33% and a positive score of 17.
“He’s always been the quasi celebrity people love to hate,” says Q Scores’ exec veep Henry Schafer. “He tends to have a negative reaction, but it tends to be a love-hate thing as opposed to dislike.”
In that sense, Trump shares something in common with presidential possibility Sarah Palin. Her awareness is 70% and her Q score is 14.
Schafer’s firm doesn’t measure politicians, but they did survey Palin in September, at the same time they measured Trump, as she was becoming a larger media presence as a Fox News commentator and with a pending reality show on TLC.
“Sarah Palin’s Alaska” was just the kind of “soft” entertainment venue you’d expect to help her image. But the Granite State poll showed her negatives only getting worse, with her unfavorability rating among likely Republican voters at 50% in the most recent poll, up from 34% in October.
It’d be foolish to blame Palin’s negatives entirely on her TLC series, but the show’s healthy aud apparently isn’t enough to counter the polarization as she steps into the political fray.
Schafer says their Q scores don’t necessarily reflect overexposure — they need more measurements — and that these political forays into entertainment should be considered “added exposure or enhanced exposure, and it’s up to them to make it work.”
In recent presidential cycles the forays have worked very well — to the point where it seems almost quaint that Bill Clinton’s advisers actually worried about him going on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992. Now it’s a given that candidates will tap into latenight TV, at the risk of seeming too stiff.
But the prospective candidacies of Trump and Palin — and wouldn’t that make Mark Burnett, the producer of their shows, into a new kind of kingmaker? — do test the limits of when it is just too much.
Obama’s 2008 campaign included visits to shows like “The View” or appearances on ESPN, but it’s not clear how much guest spots on Leno or Letterman have helped him as president. When he seemed to pop up everywhere shortly after taking office in 2009, the White House countered arguments that he was risking overexposure by pointing out the realities of today’s media environment and its multiplying outlets. But Obama’s recently departed senior adviser, David Axelrod, told New York magazine’s John Heilemann last month, “You know, we have one of the great political performers of our time. But I think we degraded that to some degree by using him as much as we did in the ways we did.”
Trump, notes Northeastern U. associate professor Alan Schroeder, is the “exact opposite of a blank screen,” so his challenge will be to change built-in perceptions. Dangling a presidential campaign may be a smart career move, but it’s a whole lot different when it comes down to the nitty gritty of retail politics.
“You look at Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger and you see that voters have the capacity to re-envision a familiar personality in another mode,” Schroeder says. When it comes to Trump, “I don’t know how adaptable he would be to a campaign. I don’t know if he has that skill set. … But it would be really entertaining to see him at a county fair in Iowa.”