Unlike most politicians, President Donald Trump does not dwell on political polls – he focuses on television ratings. It might be his Achilles' heel, or his strategic genius.
At last week’s White House Social Media summit, he talked about his tweets, less in terms of whether they had the desired political effect, more as how they dominated the conversation.
As he described it, “It would be like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty.” He wasn’t speaking about positive or negative reaction – only about the ability of the tweet to grab attention.
He talked about a tweet where he accused the Obama administration of spying on him in at Trump Tower and how successful it had been, “that thing was like a rocket. I got a call two minutes later. ‘Did you say that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I said that.’ ‘Well, it’s exploding. It’s exploding.’ I turned out to be right.”
Trump’s tweet was a very controversial accusation. In fact, it caused quite a news storm and has remained the subject of much debate.
But for Trump, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the ability to dominate the ratings – and command the attention of the nation.
Thursday he had to backtrack about his North Carolina rally crowd chanting “send her back,” the night before and suffer through significant criticism for a series of tweets that suggested the four progressive congresswomen of “the squad,” Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Indeed, last Sunday, it appeared that Congressional Democrats were devolving into a civil war between moderates, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and “the squad.” But by Wednesday, the party had united to vote in favor of a congressional condemnation of his “racist” tweets.
A politician obsessed by polls might worry about the political fallout from this week. Despite an amazingly strong economy and historic low unemployment, Trump is fighting an uphill battle for reelection.
A poll in April found that over half of people “certain to vote” would definitely not vote for him. And a USA Today online poll found this week that among those who were aware of the tweets, fully 68 percent agreed they were “offensive.”
Still, a politician focused on ratings – like Trump – could easily count this week as a win.
Indeed, he accomplished two things:
First, he eclipsed the Democratic race for the nomination. Did you know they were campaigning this week? Few did.
Axios, highlighting data from NewsWhip, looked at social media interactions tied to stories about the campaign. They found a low of only 6.5 million interactions this past week – just three weeks after almost 30 million people watched the candidates debate each other over two nights.
Second, consistent with stated GOP strategy, Trump further implanted “the squad” as the face of the Democratic Party. While some might fault him for helping to unify the Democrats, he ensured they were unified in support of a group that very clearly has low poll numbers.
You may think that Trump’s focus on ensuring a “ratings rocket” rather than a shrewd poll-driven strategy is foolish, but remember – this is precisely how he achieved victory in 2016.
During the primary, many viewed him as a “sideshow” and laughed as his rallies drew high ratings for cable television networks. But while the audience was focused there, the more traditional candidates, Govs. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and the rest, destroyed each other and gave him the nomination.
Similarly, during the general election campaign, while his rallies continued to garner big ratings, his news stories were uniformly controversial. Still, he used his ability to maintain attention to clearly define his opponent. With the benefit of folks belittling his chances and a steady stream of dramatically negative stories consistent with his description of his opponent, he managed to eke out a win.
It might be easier for Trump to focus on the economy and ride it to reelection. But, that would be inconsistent with the Trump brand.