Rise of Donald Trump: media as a voter-decision accelerator


Miloš Gregor

Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University, and International Institute of Political Science. Fields of interests are campaigns, political marketing and propaganda manipulative techniques. 


US2016 - Section 1

Section 1: Media

The media are key in shaping public opinion during campaigns and can help voters with their decision making. If there were any doubts about the role of the media and their ability to compete with the Internet, those doubts were smacked down by this year’s election. The first of three televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was watched by 84 million Americans – and this does not include those who viewed it on the Internet and abroad. It was not just the debates which had an influence on public opinion. There were also subsequent media and Internet commentaries and analyses which emerged after each of the three debates. How the media represent each of the candidates has the ability to affect people’s voting decisions and thus the election results.

Ironically, Donald Trump, who complained about media bias and accused them of conspiring to rig the election, profited the most from the media attention. After Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States in mid-June 2015, he was considered by most of the media to be more of an amusement than a serious candidate. They could not have been more wrong.

Priming of the Primaries

Even during the autumn and winter, Trump was considered to be an anomaly, despite the fact that he was doing well in the polls. The situation began to change with the first caucuses and primaries. It was then that it became obvious that the support for Trump was real and that he was a candidate to be contended with. And, in fact, he received the nomination smoothly.

The Democratic Party presidential primaries brought us a surprise, too. Hillary Clinton, the party favourite, found a capable opponent – certainly more a robust one than might have initially been expected – in Bernie Sanders. Sanders had more in common with Trump than mere criticism of the current political elites and system. Their popularity was greatly supported with the help of the media. Not that the media were uncritical of Sanders and Trump, quite the contrary. Although the media criticized them more than they praised them, neither of them were affected.

Some Democratic Party voters did not intend to accept the fact the only serious candidate in the primaries was Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders represented an alternative, not only on a personal level, but also for his socialist program and criticism of the political system. And there were a total of 17 candidates running for the Republican Party nomination. Although five of them withdrew from the race before the first caucus in Iowa, the biggest challenge for the rest of the candidates was to stand out from the crowd and claim their time in the media spotlight. Trump was the best at this. He also managed to be the most salient critic of the political system – a position shared with a considerable amount of Republican voters. So it happened that Sanders lost the party nomination, and the Republicans had to accept the bitter pill of a party nomination for Donald Trump.

From Conventions to the General Elections

In early summer there was a shift in how the media represented Donald Trump and his campaign. – the media began to put Trump’s statements into context and the critique increased. Trump, however, managed to convince his supporters that the media are biased and that they were trying to harm his campaign. Several events have occurred since the July conventions which affected candidate preferences in the polls. The most important moment for the Trump campaign was the publication of an eleven year old tape of Trump insulting women and approving of sexually violent behaviour towards them. A big issue for Clinton was the possible re-opening of the FBI investigation into her e-mail. Of course, the three presidential TV debates that took place in September and October were also important major events.

In terms of mentions of Trump and Clinton on the Internet, we can identify each of the three debates as a milestone in a given period (see graphs of positive, neutral and negative sentiment mentions). However, the last graph is the most interesting as it shows a balance in sentiment. The most negative Trump mentions were found in articles published during (and immediately after) the debates and in the days when his tape-scandal appeared. However, a huge increase of articles with neutral and positive sentiments can be seen just a few days before the general election. If we compare the evolution of the poll preference with the semantic balance of the articles and comments that have been published on the Internet, we find that the development of the polls is strikingly similar to the sentiment balance of the candidates. And, as the case of the US Presidential election in 2016 shows us, Internet discussions follow the media.

The graphs show the result of real-time and ongoing sentiment analysis of over 100 million articles from 275 thousand sources. These cover media websites, commentaries, political, business and academic analysis, etc. The graphs 1 – 3 show number of articles with specific sentiment published every day. Graph 4 shows sentiment balance made from average of positive and negative sentiments.

Source: Semantic Visions.

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