Last January, Donald Trump sent out this tweet on Twitter: “You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else. -- Albert Einstein.”
When it comes to running for president, the New York billionaire has mixed the advice of the genius with his own ingenuity. He has succeeded by learning the new rules of social media and thumbing his nose at old political standards. He’s ignored the requirement to be civil, broken the axiom that one must build a strong ground operation and flouted the biggest rule of all – money makes all the difference.
Trump has generated great political momentum while spending $5.6 million. Jeb Bush has spent $14.5 million and he is backed by a Super PAC that has spent more than $50 million, yet his campaign sputters.
This inversion was supposed to be impossible in a race in which candidates have to raise tens of millions to be competitive. But Trump has broken that connection. He sits with his phone and sends out tweets that lead to stories in newspapers and on TV that then move on the Internet as shared stories and videos. All of it free.
When Hillary Clinton told the Des Moines Register that Trump has shown “a penchant for sexism,” Trump responded with a Dec. 23 tweet that many took to be a threat that he will bring up Bill Clinton’s treatment of women: “Hillary, When you complain about ‘a penchant for sexism,’ who are you referring to. I have great respect for women. BE CAREFUL.”
That tweet prompted a run of news stories, including one from The New York Times that noted: “Poking at Mr. Trump is not risk-free. He is unlike any rival Mrs. Clinton has confronted before, and has proved willing to say almost anything.”
Many people don’t agree with Trump’s positions as he seeks the GOP nomination, but anyone who cares about the high cost of campaigning – and the obligations candidates take on in return for the contributions – has to wonder whether Trump has in some way broken the corrupting bond between money and politics.
Could it be that free social media are a way around the towering cost of advertising that fuels the ever-rising expense of campaigning? Could ordinary people once more be able to run for high office without the financial and ethical costs of groveling for millions of dollars? Is a knack for tweeting and a message that goes viral all a 21st century candidate needs? Does @realDonaldTrump signal a way to counter the influence unleashed by Citizens United?
With these question in mind, I called Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism. Kreiss specializes in social media and political campaigns. I asked him whether Trump’s ego-driven delight in Twitter had somehow opened a way around the soaring cost of campaigning.
Kreiss listened politely and then said, “Uh, no.”
Trump’s success in using social media, he said, is much more about Trump than it is about Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest.
“We haven’t quite seen a candidate like this before, but a lot of it is attributable to just who Donald Trump is,” he said. “I can’t see these dynamics playing out with other candidates. For those candidates, money in terms of paid advertising is still going to be crucial.”
While most of the Republican field is well-known in political terms, they are dwarfed by Trump’s prominence in popular culture, a profile lifted by his role in the reality TV show “The Apprentice.”
“He came into the race with high name recognition not only among Republicans, but among the electorate as a whole. He was a celebrity,” Kreiss said.
And when outsized recognition combines with seemingly out-of-bounds comments, it ignites the Internet. Jeb Bush can put an exclamation point after his name, but the real energy happens when Trump tweets that Bush is “low energy.”
Trump’s fame positioned him well to use social media, but it is his savvy that accounts for the scale of his success. He understands the new rules that shape the relationship between social media and traditional media. “He uses Twitter to set the press agenda,” Kreiss said.
Now we’ll see if he can use it to set the nation’s.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com