Donald Trump’s always-cranky assessment of the media has been amended a bit this weekend, thanks to a New York Times article reiterating questions about Trump’s ability to suddenly emerge from his primary-campaign cocoon as a general election butterfly.
At a rally Saturday night, Trump disparaged the Times and reiterated his objection to how his events are covered. He continued the theme on Sunday morning on Twitter.
It’s that second tweet that’s most interesting to me. (In part because Trump has been talking about the “failing New York Times” and complaining about how crowd size isn’t covered for a long time.) (Oh, incidentally: The news media talks about his crowds regularly.)
So let’s assess this: “If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%.”
The “false meaning” complaint is pretty clearly about how his “Second Amendment people” comments were reported. On CNN on Sunday morning, Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, complained to Jake Tapper about that coverage, repeating the campaign’s insistence that Trump meant that gun owners could go vote to ensure a Trump victory. That clearly wasn’t what Trump was saying in the moment, since he was talking about judicial appointments after a Clinton win in the election.
Regardless, it’s worth asking what has changed from the primary to the general election in terms of Trump’s coverage. I’d suggest that not much has; in the primaries, he got a lot of extensive coverage of his rallies and a lot of scrutiny of the things that he said at them. But the polling showed him doing well, holding a lead.
What has changed is the polls we’re looking at, from primary voters to general. Trump got a core group of strong Republican supporters early in the primaries and held them. They responded well to his style and his message. He only cobbled together a majority of the party’s electorate at the end of the race; he ended up with less than a majority of the Republican vote.
That’s not the measuring stick anymore. That core of support is enough to keep him at about 40 percent in general election polls, but the media coverage that earned him his primary wins hasn’t done much to expand his base of support past that.
So Trump is doing the same thing but not winning. And since media is all he’s doing, the media gets the blame.
That’s the key point. Trump has the same ability as any other candidate to say precisely what he wants to any voter in any state: by advertising. He can buy ads in swing states and run 30- or 60-second spots making whatever case he wants in any language he chooses. He can send mail, he can knock on doors. He can, in other words, run a campaign. But he’s not.
He isn’t running any ads, spending zero dollars on television (and getting outspent by the Green Party and Libertarian candidates). He isn’t contacting voters on doors or on phones, and has hardly any field offices. He isn’t sending mail. He’s tweeting, he’s holding rallies, but not much else.
And he’s holding rallies in places like Connecticut, where he was Saturday. He told the crowd there that he was going to make a “big play” for the state, which one has to assume isn’t true. Trump won’t win Connecticut, a heavily Democratic state. There’s no point in his wasting campaign resources on the state (in the event that he starts expending resources anywhere) since it holds only a couple of electoral votes anyway. It’s simply baffling that he would hold an event there at all, even if he’s not serious about carrying the state. (He was there for a fundraiser, but that doesn’t mean that spending money and time on a rally makes sense.)
As Stuart Stevens, who ran Mitt Romney’'s 2012 campaign, puts it, the only resource in which Trump and Hillary Clinton are tied is time — the number of hours to Election Day. Trump spent a bunch of those hours in Connecticut.
Trump started raising money for his campaign only in late June, a month and a half after his last primary opponents dropped out. We don’t know what he spent money on in July, but we do know where he spent it through June — with almost nothing spent on ads that month.
Amazingly, we still hear mentions about how Trump is going to gear up for the general election, that he’s transitioning out of primary mode. Here is former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, in that Times article: “I think it is true that maybe it took him a little while to realize that we’re moving from a primary campaign to a presidential campaign,” Giuliani said.
You’re not moving between the two, guys! You’re in a general election — and that general election is half over.
Trump’s problem is not that the “disgusting and corrupt media” is putting false meaning into things he says. The problem is that Trump’s only messenger is himself, and that he says things that seem to objective observers inside and outside the media as questionable. Trump is mad at how his speeches are covered by the media because he can’t figure out why the strategy isn’t working the way it did during the primary season. He can put out any message he wants on TV or in mail or wherever he wants. It’s not free, but he can do it.
But for some incomprehensible reason, he won’t.