So far, it’s not the power of incumbency, but of insurgency that’s been most politically potent in the 2016 presidential race. And it’s not just outsiders outmaneuvering establishment candidates, but also an ever-evolving media environment that is accompanying, and perhaps propelling, the candidates.
All this has upended pundits’ predictions that familiar families, or at least faces, would marshal so much money that the general election would likely be a reprise of recent races with a Clinton or a Bush (or both) on the ballot. Instead, despite their campaign cash, well-funded front-runners have performed poorly, proving that even in the post-Citizens-United era there are no guarantees. Indeed, the deep donor lists may even be costing candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush because it’s an insider symbol during an insurgent season.
Beyond Donald Trump, outsiders Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are rising at the expense of establishment figures. Fiorina was the consensus breakthrough debater Wednesday night; before then, Carson had eclipsed all but Trump in recent Republican polls. And this week Trump and Sanders spoke to packed houses — stadiums, actually — after each rose (or rocketed) in polls despite sparse spending.
Neither has needed to. Being provocative seems more important than being presidential this cycle, and free live coverage on cable news networks, including record-setting audiences for debates, has supplanted paid campaign commercials. Of course, campaigns will still spend on traditional media, including TV. But as those commercials commence, they’ll contend with a media landscape distinctly different from the one Bush and Clinton faced in previous races.
“Things move much, much more rapidly now — the news cycle used to be 24 hours but is now 24 minutes,” said Chuck Porter, partner/chairman of the Miami-based Crispin Porter + Bogusky advertising agency. Porter, an adviser to Wharton’s Future of Advertising Project and a recent Advertising Hall of Fame inductee, will return to his home state this Thursday for an Advertising Federation of Minnesota presentation on “Reinventing Advertising.”
Advertising may need to be reinvented, since media has been, but Porter believes that the fundamentals for brands pertain to politicians, too. “Regardless of the medium, the killer app is a great story,” Porter said, adding that great stories “are the ones that succeed regardless of the media.”
Or regardless of the channel, at least when it comes to TV. That much will be apparent during Sunday’s Emmy Awards. Fox will broadcast, and may win that night’s ratings race. But it won’t win the most Emmys, at least in marquee categories, since the big broadcast networks were often snubbed in favor of commercial-free alternatives like HBO (a record 126 nominations), Showtime, and even Netflix and Amazon. And it’s not just pay cable and alternative-distribution models muscling in on broadcast and basic cable: PBS was nominated for 29 Emmy Awards.
To be sure, quality does not equate to quantity in TV. In fact, the opposite is often true. Broadcast and basic cable networks still have bigger audiences — especially for live sports and, yes, awards shows. Campaign strategists will still find available viewers.
And TV isn’t the only media form transforming. Even the Internet, the original digital disrupter, is in flux. And there are challenging changes to radio, magazines, newspapers and nearly every method to convey campaign messages, except lawn signs.
“Any media strategist has to understand that there is no finish line,” Porter said. “Popular culture wants to change.” Candidates who react to or even shape that change will benefit, be they insurgents or — as many expect — eventually establishment figures. There’s still time: Most voters won’t fully focus until snow falls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But so far, citizens uniting around insurgents amid an evolving media era has been as big a 2016 story as Citizens United itself.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.