We’ve come to expect a direct, personal relationship with our favorite businesses rather than formal press releases and detached streams of information from third-party sources. In communications, we call this disintermediation, and it’s the new norm for how businesses interact with the public.
In political campaigns, this strategy of targeted outreach with constituents to create trust and build fierce loyalty is no different. This election cycle, it appears candidates trump the competition when they generate enormous earned media exposure. I’m referring, of course, to Donald Trump, the most successful disintermediator of 2016. He tweets exactly what he’s thinking, hosts Saturday Night Live, forces major news networks to interview him on the phone rather than appearing regularly in person, and speaks at rallies of thousands with no teleprompter or politically-correct filter. His brash and impulsive behavior commands our attention. Even after deciding to skip the Jan. 28 Republican debate, Trump’s choice forced moderators and candidates to focus on his campaign without actually being in the room. He side-steps the traditional model of carefully crafted media strategies and press teams coordinating a candidate’s every move.
Trump knows that the benefits of a controversial statement from a rally can outweigh spending on attack ads in terms of media exposure. He has largely self-funded his campaign, raising only $21.2 million in outside contributions. The majority of which come from small-dollar donors rather than Super PACs and the traditional Republican donor base.
Trump amassed the largest victory in a New Hampshire Republican primary since 2000 with 35% of the vote. He defeated his competition by a landslide; Ohio Gov. John Kasich received the second highest vote count and barely cleared 15%. Trump did this while spending only $38 per vote. In comparison, Kasich spent upwards of $238 per vote and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came in fourth spending a staggering $1,150 per vote. According to Morning Consultant, Bush spent $36.1 million on TV spots, while Trump ran only $3.7 million worth of advertisements in New Hampshire.
Numerous high-dollar GOP donors are questioning the effectiveness of their large contributions to more establishment candidates and their Super PACs as they see the impact of Trump’s disintermediation strategy and cost per vote comparisons. Some of which, reportedly, are withholding donations until after the South Carolina primary or even the March 15 primaries, in hopes that the field clears up and they can coalesce behind a candidate they believe can take on Trump. It remains unclear whether sitting on the sidelines waiting for the right horse to lead the pack will be a winning strategy for these donors, as some begin to worry that there may come a time in which Trump builds so much momentum that he becomes unbeatable.
As long as Trump can continue to dominate news cycles, he doesn’t need the enormous ad buys. His experience as a popular reality TV star and notoriety as a Twitter personality that never fears from controversy, sparks more attention than advertisements ever could. In recent years, his celebrity has eclipsed his success as a businessman. Younger generations know him better for his over-the-top antics than his real estate ventures. He is his own brand. He is proof that the traditional political campaigning and advertising model is outdated. Political campaigns should get their message to their targeted constituencies through disintermediation via multiple channels. Today, if you’re using the traditional model, you better rethink your strategy.
Love him or hate him, It doesn’t matter. You’re paying attention to him. Statistician and founder of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, who correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 general election and all 50 in 2012, has reneged on an earlier dismissive statement another writer on his blog made about Trump being a flash in the pan presidential hopeful. Instead, Silver makes the case that Republicans now need to treat Trump as the frontrunner, whether they want to or not.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will win the nomination with his bravado, but he’s proven the value of disintermediation in the political spectrum.