Is Donald Trump the Victim of a Fickle Media?

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Donald Trump’s poll numbers are falling, and political scientist John Sides says it’s because the media is covering him less. The chart on the right tells his tale. When the media started covering Trump heavily, he surged in the polls. When they tapered off, he began to drop.

I don’t doubt that there’s some truth in this, but really, how can you tell? When there’s an earthquake somewhere, news coverage spikes, but no one thinks news coverage caused the earthquake. News coverage spiked because something happened. Likewise, news coverage of Trump increased because something happened: He officially entered the Republican race and started racking up a lot of support.

I’m not quite sure how you disentangle the two. Sides acknowledges that this is probably a “self-reinforcing cycle,” but how much is coverage driving polling versus polling driving coverage? There’s no way to tell.

But there is a further bit of evidence that would be helpful: What does this chart look like for other candidates? In particular, people like Fiorina, Carson, and Sanders, who have surged, as well as folks like Walker and Bush, who have declined. Do those candidates follow a curve that matches the coverage they got? The data is all there, so it should be easy to take a look.

For what it’s worth, I think that Trump is just following the usual path of pop culture stardom: a fast rise when he does something to gain attention, followed by decline as people get bored with him and turn to something new. This cycle normally takes months or even years, but in the hothouse environment of a political campaign it’s more like weeks. Unlike, say, Hillary Clinton, Trump doesn’t have a solid base of support built up over years. He’s purely a fad, so his rise and fall are especially fast and spectacular. The media surely plays its role in this, but so does real life.

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And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

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THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

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