Donald Trump's bizarre performance at a rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Thursday night — insulting his opponents, swearing, inviting someone to try to stab him — has prompted a new round of "has he gone too far" questioning. (Which is somewhat unusual: The media, which asked that question repeatedly in July and August, is now much more timid about speculating on Trump's political demise for obvious reasons.) It is perfectly possible that he has Gone Too Far™, at long last — perhaps because his tone was noticeably different (as Jeff Blehar of the conservative blog Ace of Spades notes).
But for this to be Trump's "gone too far" moment, people needed to have seen it or heard about it. Which raises an interesting question in an age of fragmented media: How many people will actually watch or hear about Trump's speech?
We can start with at least one hard number: The people in the room. Our Jenna Johnson was covering the event (and wrote an amazing article about it). Via e-mail, she told me how many people witnessed it firsthand: With 1,200 in the theater, plus people standing, people on-stage and people in an overflow room, she figured there were about 1,500 people who saw it live.
As Trump spoke, people in attendance (including Johnson and other reporters) were tweeting out tidbits as they happened. Tweets are one of the purest forms of the sound bite — tiny, easily transmittable chunks of text. Prompting an aside: When we question whether Trump has "gone too far" we're really asking if Trump has said or done something that will change the minds of people who support him. That doesn't require watching the full speech; a tweet about the speech could prompt that reaction.
Johnson's most popular tweet from the event dealt with Trump's assertions of his military expertise.
Donald Trump in Iowa: "I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me."
— Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) November 13, 2015
According to Twitter's analytics, that tweet resulted in over 53,000 "impressions," a count of the number of times the tweet was seen on Twitter. Johnson had a number of other tweets, too, including quoting Trump asking, "How stupid are the people of Iowa?" It wasn't seen as often, yielding 25,000 impressions. That quote was tweeted frequently in the moment (see here, here, here and here, for example) given its disparagement of the people Trump was talking to, but most of those tweets only got a few dozen retweets.
So let's say that, in the moment, the real-time tweets of Trump's speech were seen 500,000 times in total. This is probably low, but since a lot of those views were probably seen by the same people — followers of the people tweeting — we'll use that as an estimate.
Of course, there's another point about the "gone too far" moment: It's impossible to tell what will tip the scales. Trump's fans have proven remarkably adept at forgiving what the outside world sees as transgressions. Even last night, as Johnson reported, "[a] few of Trump's fans learned about the speech on Twitter and accused reporters of fabricating the quotes and tweeting them out in unison." Even if those tweets were seen hundreds of thousands of times, it doesn't mean they had an effect.
The story rippled outward. Johnson filed her piece for The Post and then added a longer, more-fleshed-out one. Since each went live on the site, they've been viewed by a combined 400,000 unique visitors. But only a small fraction of those viewers are in Iowa or New Hampshire, and — since not everyone is like you and reads deep into articles — not everyone may have seen something that changed their minds about Trump.
(On Facebook, some 430 people have "liked" Johnson's article, but the number of readers is included in the figures above.)
Of course, other media outlets also ran stories, some based on reporters at the scene and some based on reports like Johnson's. It's impossible to know how many people read those articles after they went up, but it's safe to assume that it was in the millions, total — say 2 million, just to have a number — with the same caveats as above.
It took very little time for video from Trump's speech to make it onto television. CNN's Don Lemon had the footage in short order, airing it shortly before midnight.
On Monday, 417,000 people watched Lemon's show, about 150,000 of whom were aged 25 to 54.
But that was just the start of the television broadcasts. CBS featured the story (and Johnson's story in particular) on its "This Morning" program early Friday. That show attracted an average of 3.6 million viewers last week. It was also on ABC's "Good Morning America" (5 million average viewers), NBC's "Today" (4.8 million) and the less-watched programs MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and CNN's "New Day." According to the media-monitoring site TVEyes.com, the phrase "How stupid are the people of Iowa" has aired 37 different times since midnight — on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg and Fox Business. That's hundreds of thousands of more people who saw at least that clip — if not Trump's comments about the military or about Ben Carson.
It also aired in Iowa. The network affiliates ran the morning shows, as you'd expect. But the CBS affiliate (KCCI) included Trump's comments in their own local newscast ("one of the Republican candidates is not sure we are getting it right") as did the NBC affiliation (WHO) last night at 10 p.m. The viewership of those broadcasts doesn't get into the millions, but they are obviously much more focused on the voters of the state.
Of course, video isn't only shown on TV anymore, Grandpa. KCCI's clip of Trump's Iowa comments is on YouTube, with a modest number of viewers.
There are a number of other versions of the clip, totaling a few thousand views. There are undoubtedly versions on Snapchat and Vine and wherever else, but in many cases those are even harder to suss out. (We looked at the problem with Snapchat earlier this year.)
And then there are all of the other outlets. Morning e-mail newsletters, like The Post's Daily 202. People sharing articles over e-mail to try and convince their relatives one way or the other. Or good old word of mouth. A hard figure is very hard to determine.
But we'll take a stab anyway. Totaling the figures above gives us something like this: 1,500 + 500,000 + 400,000 + 2,000,000 + 417,000 + 13,500,000 — or 16.8 million people. Well, not people, actually, since I saw a lot of the tweets and articles and TV broadcasts. We'll use Twitter's term: impressions.
Is that a lot? Is it a little? It's actually hard to say. Clearly it's one of the dominant political stories of the day — but on a Friday in November when a lot of people aren't paying much attention to politics. It’s also only about 12 hours after the fact. Who knows what happens over the next week. The only way to really know the extent to which a story like this has penetrated the public awareness is with polling, but once you're polling people in Iowa, you can just go ahead and ask them if they support Donald Trump. Skip a step.
Donald Trump might have gone too far on Thursday. He certainly did for some voters. But how many know at this point what he said and how many will have their minds changed is very difficult to calculate. Which also means that, for pundits, there's not a whole lot of risk in asking the question.