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Donald Trump Is Running A Perpetual Attention Machine

Earlier this month, I outlined Donald Trump’s “Six Stages of Doom” — the hurdles he’ll have to clear to win the Republican nomination. The first obstacle: Could Trump keep his polling numbers up when another storyline emerged that prevented him from monopolizing the news cycle? “For a variety of reasons, Trump isn’t affected much by negative media coverage — it may even help him,” I wrote. “But a lack of media coverage might be a different story.”

It’s too soon to say whether Trump has passed this first test. Partly because it’s August — almost half a year before Iowa and New Hampshire and way too early to read much into the polls — but also because the Trump show hasn’t stopped. He’s dominating coverage as much as ever.

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The chart above shows the share of news coverage and Google search traffic that Trump has received among all Republican candidates. (See here for the methodology.) The share of news coverage devoted to Trump has been fairly steady over the past month. Steady and very high, at 50 percent to 60 percent of all coverage received by the GOP field. In other words, Trump is getting as much coverage as the rest of the Republican field combined. But Trump’s Google search traffic is often just as high, or higher.

There’s one anomaly, though, which is the week of Aug. 2. That was the week of the first Republican debate, in Cleveland. That week, Trump received a comparatively low share of Google search traffic — “only” 41 percent. People weren’t any less interested in Trump after the debate, but they were more interested than usual in some of the other Republican candidates, especially Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich, each of whom had among their best weeks of the year from a search traffic standpoint. So Trump’s share of search traffic fell in proportion to the rest of the field. Media interest in Trump was as high as ever, however: He represented 59 percent of the press coverage that week. Since then, search traffic for Carson, Fiorina and Cruz is a bit higher than before the debate but has reverted mostly back to the mean.

What’s interesting is how Trump seemed to go out of his way after the debate to ensure that he’d remain the center of attention, with his tirade against Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (a feud that he’s since resurrected). That tended to drown out most of the coverage of whether, say, Fiorina or Kasich had gained momentum after the debate, perhaps preventing them from having the sort of feedback loop of favorable attention that can sometimes trigger surges in the polls.

I don’t know whether this was a deliberate strategy on Trump’s behalf. But if so, it’s pretty brilliant. Trump is perhaps the world’s greatest troll, someone who is amazingly skilled at disrupting the conversation by any means necessary, including by drawing negative, tsk-tsking attention to himself. In the current, “free-for-all” phase of the campaign — when there are 17 candidates and you need only 20 percent or so of the vote to have the plurality in GOP polls — this may be a smart approach. If your goal is to stay at the center of attention rather than necessarily to win the nomination, it’s worth making one friend for every three enemies, provided that those friends tell some pollster that they’d hypothetically vote for you.

Is it sustainable? In the long run, probably not. There are lots of interesting candidates in the GOP field, whether you’re concerned with the horse race, their policy positions or simply just entertainment value. Sooner or later, the media will find another candidate’s story interesting. Cruz has a lot of upside potential in the troll department, for instance, along with better favorability ratings than Trump and a slightly more plausible chance of being the Republican nominee.

But there’s not a lot of hard campaign news to dissect in August. Fend off the occasional threat by throwing a stink bomb whenever another story risks upstaging you, and you can remain at the center of the conversation, and atop the polls, for weeks at a time.


Read more: Donald Trump’s Six Stages Of Doom

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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