Video in the 2016 has been omnipresent, often bolstering the “gotcha” journalism tradition. News organizations have relied heavily on both professional and amateur election video for their reporting to compensate for the paucity of journalists on the campaign trail. The two major party candidates have been in the public eye for much of their adult lives, and there are reams of existing video to draw upon. Hillary Clinton has been a political celebrity since her husband was elected president in 1992. The Trump campaign has used video to back its claims that in thirty years of public life Clinton has been ineffective and plagued by scandal. Donald Trump is best known as the star of the reality television show, “The Apprentice,” but he has been prominently covered in entertainment media for decades. Archival video depicts Trump in some unlikely situations as a result of his celebrity. A video clip of Trump participating in the draw for the fifth round of the Rumbelows Cup twenty-five years ago circulated widely on social media during the campaign.
The influence of video on voter perceptions is greatest when it supports a consistent narrative about a candidate.
The influence of video on voter perceptions is greatest when it supports a consistent narrative about a candidate. A prominent media frame characterized thrice-married Donald Trump, who once owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant, as a misogynist. During a Republican primary debate, moderator Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Trump to address the fact that he has “called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” Trump responded by feuding with Kelly on Twitter and in his stump speeches, reinforcing the misogynist frame by referring to Kelly as a “bimbo” and worse. Hillary Clinton, the first female major party presidential candidate, capitalized on this frame during the second presidential debate by calling out Trump for his treatment of Alicia Machado, a former Miss Venezuela who had won the Miss Universe pageant. Machado alleged that Trump had called her “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.” Archival video depicted Trump fat shaming Machado for putting on weight, and accompanying her to a gym flanked by photographers. The Trump campaign countered with images of Machado from her stint on a reality TV show which they characterized as a “sex tape.”
Perhaps the most damaging video of the campaign relayed a 2005 conversation between Donald Trump and Access Hollywood correspondent Billy Bush that was captured before Trump participated in a segment about his cameo on a soap opera. In it Trump brags about how his celebrity status allows him to do what he pleases with women. The video dominated news coverage for days, and was raised in the second presidential debate, where Trump dismissed the statements as “locker room talk.” Numerous women came forward alleging that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted them which countered Trump’s denials. The Clinton campaign capitalized by running a series of videos juxtaposing clips of Trump’s statements about women against images of girls looking in the mirror talking about self-esteem issues. Polls indicated that Trump’s support was diminished among some segments of the electorate as a result of the fallout from the video.
The role of video in elections has come a long way in the decade since George Allen’s “macaca moment,” when a single off-handed comment shot by an amateur videographer was able to bring down a candidate. The ability of video evidence to validate media and candidate claims in an era of low public trust enhances its impact. At the same time, the public may be becoming somewhat desensitized to the video bombardment. In 2016, video revelations to rival the “macaca moment” were a regular occurrence, yet often the firestorm was short-lived. What may be more significant is the cumulative impact of video on an already disgruntled electorate. The negative—often incendiary—content of much campaign video can contribute to political polarization and the public’s alienation and anger toward government and politics.