One of the biggest criticisms of the current presidential election campaigns is that the candidates' ability to entertain trumps their command and discussion of the issues. As this story goes, image appears to matter more than the ability to lead the "free world." That is what is being said, but is it really true? Have presidential elections degenerated into White House Idol? Are we in danger of nominating Sanjaya for President?
The latest trigger for this critique, Donald Trump's hosting of Saturday Night Live this past weekend, is not something new to presidential politics. Hillary Clinton has appeared more than once on the show since the launch of her 2016 campaign. During the 2012 campaign, President Obama appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to "Slow Jam" the news. During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton played his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. Even Richard Nixon appeared on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in 1968 to deliver the show's signature punch-line, "Sock it to me."
These pop culture appearances by presidential candidates, challengers and incumbents alike, are nothing new. But while these appearances initially relied on the reach of the television shows where the candidates appeared and the subsequent reach of the news coverage those appearances engendered, today's candidate can get a significantly larger and more sustained additional boost via social media.
Donald Trump's appearance on SNL this past weekend generated over 100,000 tweets, and while the sentiment of these tweets were fairly negative (26 out of a 100), the reach generated by the tweets far exceeded the reach of pre-social media TV appearances by candidates. And Trump's appearance boosted SNL's viewer audience to 25 million, generating its highest ratings since 2012.
What we are witnessing in the Trump campaign is a revolution in electoral strategy. Despite not spending any money on television ads, Donald Trump has parlayed social media, guest TV appearances and an hypnotic control over the media forcing them to cover his every utterance into unprecedented success.
Pundits can speculate all they want about this election and who is up or down, but the truth is social media is a wildcard none of them can predict and few are able to wrap their head around at all. Just look at the facts, Donald Trump is not buying ads but his social media buzz and media coverage dwarfs the other candidates. In fact, his buzz is at least as big as all the other GOP candidates combined. Everyone knows who Trump is and that he is running for president. That is the gold standard for a presidential primary campaign.