No Publicity Is Bad Publicity: How This Now Rings True in the Political Arena

To Presidential Candidate Ben Carson, “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” as he said in a recent interview with Wolf Blitzer. The comments almost immediately drew the ire of the public and the media alike. The New York Times ran an op-ed in which Judaic studies expert Alan Steinweis argued that the remarks “trivialize the predicament in which Jews found themselves in Germany and elsewhere in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.” The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) even released a statement explaining that “the small number of firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.” Carson responded by calling the ADL’s assertion “total foolishness.” This is not the first time in the campaign that Carson has evoked disapproval from the ADL. Less than three weeks before condemning his words on Nazi gun control, the ADL said it was “deeply troubled” by Carson’s opinion that a Muslim should not be president because, in his view, the values of Islam are not aligned with those of the Constitution. In the interim between these two disputes, Carson also offered his thoughts on the Umpqua Community College shooting, noting that he “would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him.’ He may shoot me but he can’t get us all.” But Carson’s comments have not led to his campaign’s ultimate demise. Unlike past presidential races, many of this round’s candidates—notably Carson and Trump—have not received disastrous repercussions from making controversial comments, and some have even seen rising favorability rates. It seems as if the strategy of suggesting policies that appeal to a significant percentage of the American people is less effective at winning votes this election cycle than garnering media attention at all costs.

Naturally, plenty of people reacted to Carson’s sets of comments adversely. One would not be considered foolish for expecting his campaign to crumble in the wake of these types of controversies. However, instead of nose-diving like many expected, his poll numbers witnessed a sizeable increase between September 15 and October 15, leaving him just 1 percent behind current GOP pack leader Donald Trump in the polls. His campaign has seen a rise in donations since his claim that a Muslim wouldn’t be fit to lead the United States, ending the third quarter with a higher fundraising total – $20 million – than any other Republican candidate.

Despite Carson’s innumerable controversial comments, the retired neurosurgeon has consistently maintained one of the highest favorability ratings among GOP candidates throughout 2015, with the biggest gains coming since August. But only after his most recent string of provocative remarks in close proximity has he come so close to leading the primary race; a recent Fox News poll had Carson trailing current leader Trump by a mere single percent. It’s impossible to determine if these gains are a direct result of the above comments, but they certainly haven’t crippled Carson’s campaign either.

Of course, one other candidate competes with Carson’s propensity for generating controversy, and it just so happens to be the one person still in front of him in the polls: Donald Trump. Trump’s habit of making eyebrow-raising statements has been well-documented, between his thoughts on immigrants, Megyn Kelly, and Carly Fiorina’s face. All of these and other similarly questionable statements quickly became front-page headlines on media sites and leading stories on political shows, keeping the New York native’s name constantly in election analyses. It’s translated into success among voters as well; in the week following his antagonistic comments on immigrants, Trump’s numbers skyrocketed, kicking off his rise to the top of the GOP race. One could justifiably argue that the driving force behind Trump’s campaign has been publicity, not policy.

All of this points to a newly emerging trend in American politics, one that could shake up the way campaigns are fashioned in future elections. Given the successes, thus far, of Trump and Carson in comparison to more policy-driven candidates, along with the trend of rising poll numbers in the immediate aftermath of polarizing statements, it seems that attention – no matter how negative – may now be the most reliable path to success for presidential primary candidates. Getting the media and, or the public to cry out over a comment – usually one that is considered offensive by a certain group — now appears to help rather than hurt candidates, no matter how offensive the comment was.

The previous strategy of suggesting policies that appeal to the American people seems to be less effective in winning votes this election cycle than garnering media attention at all costs.

While the phrase “no publicity is bad publicity” has been in circulation for a long time, up until this year, it seemed not to apply to political campaigns; the last presidential election proved as much. Rick Perry enraged LGBTQ+ individuals and their supporters with his now-infamous “Strong” advertisement in which he said, “You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong with this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Already falling in the GOP polls and having faced an earlier controversy over the racially-charged name of his hunting ground, the disparagement Perry fell under in reaction to the commercial killed off his campaign for good. Though based on alleged actions rather than simple words (yet still a media-grabbing scandal), Herman Cain’s chances met a similar fate after accusations of sexual assault became front-page news. Cain and eventual nominee Mitt Romney had been neck-and-neck in the month prior to the allegations, but the former lost 11 percent of his support and dropped into third, well behind both leader Romney and then-runner-up Newt Gingrich.

In both of these cases, media disapproval and public uproar ruined a candidate’s chances of winning a party nomination. So what has changed in four years to convert contentious remarks from political suicide into a vote-getter? The media could be partially at fault here, with some accusing news outlets of focusing far too heavily on the candidates’ questionable statements rather than on their policies. This argument has some basis, as over half of Ben Carson’s mentions on major cable news networks started roughly around when he said a Muslim couldn’t be president. Likewise, over the past 100 days, Donald Trump’s name has been mentioned almost twice as much as the next contender and over four times as much as the next Republican. Last election, on the other hand, increases in media coverage of a specific candidate generally correlated with that candidate’s performances in debates, polls, or a newly-presented policy.

Another potential contributing factor could be the rise of social activism in recent years and the resulting blowback against it. Ever since the growth of social media, discussion of social issues has been increasing, particularly in the past few years. This “hashtag activism” was an enormous part of the protests against police brutality that took place in 2014 and 2015, enabling individuals to share ideas, coordinate demonstrations, and stress #blacklivesmatter until it became common political jargon. At the time of the 2012 election, the only comparable examples of such a phenomenon were the use of Twitter and other mediums during the Arab Spring and the failed Kony 2012 undertaking. Some have fought this increase in social activism vehemently, pejoratively labeling online advocates “social justice warriors” and decrying “political correctness,” to the point where it has become a major talking point in presidential primary debates. Both Trump and Carson have publicly and repeatedly lamented the rise of “political correctness” and have made efforts to emphasize how they don’t wish to follow its guidelines. Therefore, as BPR Staff Writer Jennifer Kim alluded to in her recent piece, to many voters it could appear that the decidedly politically incorrect statements the two have been making are a deliberate attempt to fight back against political correctness, and those in support of such a notion might be inclined to put their vote towards either one of them. Indeed, the narrative among Trump supporters that he is the only candidate who freely speaks his mind supports that assertion.

Elections are difficult to predict. The political process has been broken down time and time again, and thousands of people are hired to try and figure out how to run a successful campaign—yet it still remains somewhat of a mystery exactly how to win a political race. Thus, any hint of a trend in voter alignment is immediately evaluated and, if legitimate, exploited. That makes recognizing this developing pattern of headline grabbing at all costs so imperative. It’s possible that this election is just an outlier, and that it will soon once again be possible for politicians to shoot themselves in the foot with their words. For the time being, however, it seems that the expression “no publicity is bad publicity” finally rings true in the political realm.

Photo: Paul Lynch