Trumping the media without campaign ads

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Donald Trump has not run a single television ad. Not one.

Let that sink in. Not one single ad.

The only FCC filings from television stations in our Political Ad Sleuth tool are for appearances where Trump was invited to appear on television shows. Those include:

  • Jimmy Fallon on Sept. 11, 2015, for five minutes and 48 seconds
  • Saturday Night Live on Nov. 8, 2015, for 12 minutes and five seconds (Likely not a coincidence that this was the first show during the November ratings period.)

In comparison, FCC filings that were spotted on Political Ad Sleuth show the Jeb Bush supporting super PAC Right to Rise USA spent $5,000 for just one 30-second ad playing on Boston’s WHDH during Saturday Night Live.

So let’s set up the word problem here (because math is fun!): If one :30 ad for a super PAC costs $5,000 in Boston and Trump got 12 minutes of time on SNL, how much would it cost another campaign to match that exposure?

Theoretically, it’s about $30,000 for that single television station in Boston. However, you still need to duplicate that for every NBC television station in America, some whose ad rates are more than Boston, others that are much less. Also, the cost for a candidate is much less expensive than for a super PAC.

Still, the answer is likely millions. And that’s just one Trump television appearance.

Trump has boasted that he doesn’t need a super PAC because he’s so rich he can pay for his own campaign. Truth is, he doesn’t need a super PAC because he’s not afraid to say the upsetting and controversial things that candidates typically outsource to super PACs, a practice that distances candidates from the backlash that comes with more hostile and negative attacks.

Inflammatory attacks have been around in politics for years, they just don’t usually come out of the mouths of the candidates directly. The reason we advocate so strongly for transparency is that we think people should know exactly who is supporting and saying those things; by knowing the people and the money behind them, citizens can make their own decision about whether they trust the source of that information. The voters who disagree with what Trump says know exactly who is saying it and can cast their votes accordingly.

By taking responsibility for what he says, Trump has also made himself a news story. Trump has had appearances on MSNBC, weekend morning talk shows and has been the lead story on many local and national news outlets. He’s had way more coverage than any other candidate. And that’s just this week.

The controversial statements qualify him as “bona fide news coverage” under FCC rules, and so candidates cannot appeal the FCC for equal time. (By “bona fide news coverage,” this means that the reporters are conducting an interviews or covering newsworthy events of the day in an effort to inform to the public.) The question is will there come a point where Trump has said so many outlandish things that he is not considered newsworthy anymore?

The Republican candidates have been very vocal about a perceived “liberal bias” in the media. Yet, none seem as vocal about the excessive coverage of Trump. The amount of free coverage is perhaps more of a threat to their own campaigns where Trump has lifted millions of dollars worth of precious election cycle air time without spending a dime.