Much has been said, and will continue to be dissected and debated, about the role of the media in buoying Donald Trump to the Presidency. While “free media” has long played an important role in our democracy by fostering political discourse and disseminating electoral information, the shear enormity of coverage on Trump puts a spotlight on how the media may have influenced the course of the election.

Many factors are at play to be sure. Fair, balanced, editorial-driven coverage seems to be taking a back seat in the 24-7 competitive world of corporate-owned media. And more and more American voters are getting their news from unvetted social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. Then along comes Donald J. Trump, an uncensored political outsider, real estate mogul billionaire with an outsized brand pedigree from reality TV and entertainment tabloids.

We’ll make no causal relationships or predictions, but let’s look at the metrics for the most media-focused election spectacle this country has ever witnessed.

Free media value total: Trump = $4.96 billion vs. Clinton = $3.24 billion

I hesitate to use the term “free media”, because Donald Trump earned his media coverage. He earned it from his bombastic and insulting statements, he earned it from pulling in massive crowds to his rallies, and he earned it from winning primary after primary. Whether by design or accident, he bypassed paid advertising to bask in the attention and validation of a 24-hour news cycle.


The chart above breaks down the media segments that comprise Trump’s and Clinton’s $4.96 billion and $3.24 billion in media value respectively from the preceding 12-month period. Trump outpaced Clinton in every media segment, earning 53% more media value overall, with the starkest percent difference coming from Twitter with 142% more media value.

Trump media highlights


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Media rating: Trump entered the election with a high media rating (comparative 0-100 measure of prominence), at around 80 points. He never conceded rating ground over the entire 12-month period, earning 647 million media mentions over the past 12 months.
Media segments: Trump displayed no weaknesses in any media segments, even outside U.S. media markets.
Media sentiment continued to skew negative for Trump with significant negative value at 23% for the latest media period. However, we’ve consistently seen sentiment play a minor role in the ebb and flow of media volumes around brands, topics, and influencers. The PR adage of “any news is good news” appeared to be the case in Donald Trump coverage.

Clinton media highlights


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Hillary Clinton crossed the election finish line at $3.24 billion in media value for the trailing 12-months, nearly $2.5 billion behind Trump. From a media rating perspective, the Democratic nominee spent much of the primary and post-primary period trailing her Republican rival by 5-7 rating points. It was not until the Convention when Clinton pulled close to Trump’s then 98 rating figure.
Media rating: Clinton was already riding high media ratings at 90 points given her existing draw as Secretary of State.
Media segments: Like Trump, Clinton was comparatively strong in all media segments.
Media sentiment continued to show a very small negative and positive coverage component, with the majority of earned media falling in the “neutral” range.
Media momentum: Clinton was beginning to see a slight increase in media momentum over the last few months, but it may have come too late in the election to make a significant difference.

The 2016 election pointed to something we already knew, but needed confirmation on a national and global scale: earned media, both social and traditional, is significantly more effective in driving market awareness then paid media (advertising). During the GOP primary, anti-Trump groups within the GOP spent nearly $30 million in advertising to unseat Donald Trump as the party’s potential nominee! But during the same period Trump drove $400 million in high-stakes news coverage – without spending a dime.

With Donald Trump, we now have a good benchmark for what ubiquitous media coverage looks like. Compared with 2012, Trump earned more than three and a half times (3.5x) the media value of Barack Obama and more than six times (6x) that of Mitt Romney. Time will tell if Trump’s media benchmarks prove the exception or the rule.