Candidate Survivor: When Push Comes to Pull on the Campaign Trail

Most current analyses of media and the election go to the nature of press coverage of the candidates. Predominantly, these are:

  • unprecedented free time for Donald Trump
  • too many stories critical of Hillary Clinton miscues
  • a changed journalistic approach to coverage of Trump by calling out unsubstantiated and apparently false statements in the same story
  • horse-race coverage of the major candidates
  • total non-coverage of the minor ones.

These may all be true. But this election has a more transformative nature: the emergence of push versus pull candidacies that reflect the changing nature of media itself.

Mid-20th century communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously espoused a theory that “the medium is the message.” The first televised presidential debate in 1960 highlighted the importance of the medium to viewer perception. John Kennedy didn’t sound impressive on radio, and might well have lost the debate in audio, but he was cool and collected under the television camera lights. His performance was in direct contrast to a sweating, nervous Richard Nixon, whose shifting eyes and un-powdered, five o’clock shadow were prominently visible on camera. It turned out that most people were watching on television, not listening to the radio, and Kennedy won the debate that night.

McLuhan’s essential point still holds, the media themselves are crucial to audience perception. But the media are different. Today, the distinction of significance is push versus pull media.

Push media facilitate a central authority’s sending out messages that the audience simply receives without direct interaction. It is typified by the broadcast media, and characterized by Walter Cronkite’s famous “and that’s the way it is” sign off for his CBS Evening News broadcast.

Pull media is the decentralized, user-generated action made possible by the many-to-many nature of the Internet. The user goes online, finds what he or she needs, usually through search or reference, and pulls it down for personal use, perhaps then to recommend, reconstruct, or retweet it forward. It is searching a concept on Wikipedia, or commenting on a Facebook page.

In the long arc of democratic governance, the movement towards greater control by the electorate would seem to go hand-in-hand with the movement towards pull media.

Certainly, Donald Trump is a push candidate. His methodology, personal characteristics and mindset are authoritarian. In linguist George Lakoff’s framing, Trump offers himself up as the nation’s strict father figure compared to Hillary Clinton’s nurturant parent. Trump uses Twitter extensively, but he does so predominantly to push his own views, not to research, retrieve and learn. On Twitter, Trump has 11.5 million followers but follows only 41 people. True, he does react to tweets, indicating a willingness to engage in the new media, but the mindset is push all the way.

It is a bit harder to identify Hillary Clinton as a pull candidate. She is admittedly less comfortable with the new media, but her personality is much more pulling. She goes on a listening tour. She apparently wants to be responsive to as many people as she can. And she develops and posts extensive policy papers so that voters can find her position on just about any issue.

While Clinton seems reluctant to share personal information, she has disclosed a number of personal items such as her tax returns and, recently, some medical history. In contrast, Trump has refused to disclose tax returns and other personal documents, preferring instead to assert statements about himself that are transmitted over push media. Despite those reluctances by both candidates, much information is being disclosed either via journalistic enterprise or data leaks.

What does this mean for the American voter?

Donald Trump is most at home in front of a TV camera. The Reality TV nature of his campaign is push communication at its current height: all cameras all the time, often revealing whatever comes into his mind at the time. The US election reality show has gone from “The Apprentice” to “American Idol,” as audiences tune in daily to get the latest development. The unreal Reality medium is the new message.

Hillary Clinton and her supportive media such as Occupy Democrats send out memes that, like Trump’s, are repeated and retweeted again and again on social media. Unfortunately, for both candidates these memes and messages often go into an echo chamber where like-minded people convince each other that their candidate is the best.

At this point, the election could very well hang on the outcome of the debates. Indeed, the first one will be the most watched debate in TV history. To continue the analogy, the debates could become “Candidate Survivor.”

One could argue that these debates are centralized, push events. The whole world will be watching, mostly in real time. Perceptions will be made on the spot. That likely favors the push candidate, the one most comfortable in front of the camera, the one projecting a strong voice, and the one who has the strongest currency in the “attention economy”. That is, in a world of information overload, attention is the scarcity, and the ability to gain people’s attention is itself a valuable trait.

In this scenario, the pull candidate would do best after the fact, when factual analyses and political spin are brewed and disseminated. But will the push message drown out the pull process? This is a world of velocity, abundance and iteration, and the one able to push his message through the fog is at an advantage. While pull media are more direct, and satisfying in many ways, they are user-dependent and can fall into the echo chamber.

In this election, the results may very well depend on how citizen-sovereigns view their role. Will they passively receive the messages pushed through the din of information overload? Or will they actively pull in the information they need to make knowledgeable decisions? The new media are indeed the message.

Learn more about the work of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program.

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