One sentence sticks in my mind among the tens of millions of words that have already been uttered and written about the 2016 presidential election. It's CNBC debate moderator John Harwood saying to Donald Trump in October, "Let's be honest: Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?"
It sticks because it was monumentally wrongheaded and revealed how veteran political reporters such as Harwood have been missing a huge story about Trump running a brilliant presidential campaign based on watershed use of media.
John Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign was hailed for its landmark use of TV. But Kennedy was practically a bystander to his success on the small screen compared with Trump's manipulation of TV and social media in becoming the Republican front-runner.
A prediction: If Trump wins the GOP nomination, his campaign will be seen by historians as more of a media and political game-changer than even Kennedy's. It is the near-perfect union of man and message meeting epic media change. Hate Trump and his message all you want, but let's be intellectually honest and appreciate the media effort that is helping drive his candidacy so successfully.
Trump has won 10 states with widely differing electorates: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. And he has done that while spending less on TV advertising in any of those places than businessman David Warnock is on track to spend in the Democratic primary for mayor of Baltimore. You tell me what's comic-book about that kind of efficiency and success.
Kennedy was the right candidate at the right historical moment for television. He and his handlers were not the first to use TV in a presidential campaign. Kennedy's two-term predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, toyed with the nascent medium in the 1950s, but he and his advisers were far too old-school to ever take it seriously as a significant campaign tool.
But when the cameras found Kennedy in his first TV debate with Richard M. Nixon, it was a marriage made in media heaven. He exemplified telegenic ("having an appearance and manner that are markedly attractive to television viewers," as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
By all accounts, however, it was not something Kennedy and his advisers worked on or even particularly understood. He was just lucky enough to have a TV persona that suggested youth, energy, good looks and a certain sexiness — the hallmarks of '60s network television, which by mid-decade would be the principal storyteller of American life.
Trump, on the other hand, has honed his TV persona through his successful career as host of the prime-time reality TV show "The Apprentice." NBC helped create the image of Trump as a great businessman — despite his corporate bankruptcy filings — through such TV production strategies as setting his show in a boardroom in which he is surrounded by underlings desperately vying for his approval.
Given his 11-year career in prime-time television, Trump is the most experienced TV performer ever to run for president. Ronald Reagan, a feature film actor, hosted and acted in the "General Electric Theater" TV series from 1954 to 1962 and the anthology Western series "Death Valley Days" in 1964 and '65.
In the arc of the TV candidate, Trump is the omega to Kennedy's alpha. Trump has been masterful in getting free TV time without even appearing on camera. Since he announced in June, he has been calling in to cable and network news programs almost daily and has been given stretches of time lasting up to 20 minutes to sell his candidacy as he takes questions from hosts. So frequent were his appearances on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that some analysts started referring to it as "Morning Trump."
The businessman candidate is given such treatment in part because he delivers ratings. He speaks in a direct, colloquial way about issues that matter to viewers, and he is more than willing to get controversial and go into attack mode. Shame on the networks and cable channels for allowing themselves to get hooked on the ratings tonic that Trump peddles. But hats off to Trump for identifying their addiction and exploiting it so adroitly.
TV is still hugely important in political campaigns, and the bulk of spending will undoubtedly be on TV ad buys in this election cycle. But just as radio and TV shared the media stage in the 1950s while that transition was taking place in American life, so is TV now giving way to digital and social media. And Trump has used the latter more successfully than any candidate ever, including Barack Obama.
Obama has been rightfully praised for his use of social media in 2008 and 2012. But it wasn't really Obama, was it? It was his social-media team colonizing the new-media frontier for him — mostly behind the scenes and under the radar of political reporters.
I still am in awe at the way social media saved Obama during his second debate with Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign. After a disastrous first debate, Obama badly needed a win, which he got not so much from his performance as from hashtags ridiculing Romney.
Remember how #KillBigBird and #Bindersfullofwomen negatively framed Romney's remarks about PBS and his efforts to hire women? The hashtags not only dominated Twitter during the debate, but they also drove the morning news cycles of cable TV, legacy newspapers and websites.
But Trump has done something Obama never came close to doing: personalizing Twitter with what appears to be his own voice — a seemingly authentic voice — right down to the misspellings and questionable retweets. It's one thing to hire people to use social media for you, as Obama and other candidates have done; it's another to develop a voice that works in that new medium the way Trump's does at 140 characters or fewer a hit.
Again, analysts have derisively conjured a vision of Trump "in his pajamas" at night blasting away at opponents on Twitter, because it fits the "clown" or "comic-book" characterization. But his Twitter campaign has been highly effective in setting the agenda for morning shows on cable and network TV.
Trump's Twitter voice is perfectly pitched to that medium: snarky, hyper-aggressive, hectoring, critical in often highly personal ways, and even bullying. He calls out his rivals as "losers," "chokers" and "puppets." A typical Trump tweet: "Little Marco Rubio, the lightweight no show Senator from Florida is just another Washington politician."
It is the realm of the Twitter mob, and Trump has mastered it. And it's not easy. Just ask Rubio, who tried desperately to hit some of those same notes and failed last week.
It's not just dumb luck. At 69, Trump is part of a generation whose members have had to work at social media literacy. They were not born to it. He knows what he's doing in digital.
He's the one candidate who is speaking simultaneously and effectively in both TV and social media.
"What Trump has done in media is brilliant," says Steve Passwaiter, senior director of business development at Kantar Media-CMAG (Campaign Media Analysis Group), which measures the effectiveness of political advertising. "He's managed to rewrite the rules of political campaigning. He's taken every rule and completely flipped it on its head. ... When it comes to using media, Donald Trump is no idiot."
And he most definitely is not running a "comic-book" version of a presidential campaign.