Reality TV bites: 'The Apprentice' effect aids Trump

Story highlights

  • David Axelrod: Trump's favorability rating is much higher among 'Apprentice' viewers
  • He says it won't be enough of a boost to get him the nomination or the presidency

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. He served as senior adviser to President Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Throughout this surprising Summer of Trump, Americans at his raucous rallies have volunteered that The Donald is the strong, competent, blunt-talking leader America needs.

How do they know?
    "I watch 'The Apprentice,'" said more than one.
    David Axelrod
    It used to be that a career in public service was the experience folks looked for in sizing up a president. But with politicians increasingly viewed as detached from the reality of the people they're elected to serve, could the new road to the White House actually run through reality TV?
    You may be a little skeptical about whether managing Gary Busey and Dennis Rodman for an hour on TV qualifies one to deal with ISIS and Putin, but now there is new evidence that Trump's 14 years as ringmaster of "The Apprentice" and "The Celebrity Apprentice" were a nice foundation for his latest venture -- at least in the minds of those who watched the show.

    'Apprentice' boost

    AMG, a media planning and analytics firm on whose board I sit, has conducted an interesting experiment to study the boost being the boss of "The Apprentice" has given the current GOP frontrunner.
    Answer? Well, not HUGE, as The Donald might say. But definitely significant.
    AMG fielded an online poll of self-identified Republicans September 17th-18th, two days after the CNN debate, the topline results of which are pretty much similar to other polls that have surfaced in recent days. Trump still on top, followed by a mash of Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, who has gained off of her debate performance. Marco Rubio also is in the hunt. (Bush polls slightly higher and Rubio a bit lower in this poll than some others, perhaps an artifact of online research which still stirs a methodological debate in some quarters, or merely the effect of a six-point margin of error.)
    What was interesting is that AMG added a question to these respondents about media habits and particularly whether they were viewers of "The Apprentice" and "The Celebrity Apprentice."
    The difference between viewers and nonviewers of Trump's show is stark and revealing.
    Trump's support among "Apprentice" viewers was 38%; among nonviewers, he was at 21%, barely ahead of the pack.
    The difference is even more striking when you look at opinions of the candidates.
    Trump's lead bigger among 'Apprentice' viewers
    Candidate Total 'Apprentice' viewers Nonviewers
    Trump24%38%21%
    Bush19%15%20%
    Carson15%15%15%
    Fiorina11%11%11%
    Cruz7%2%8%
    Rubio6%11%5%
    Walker5%4%6%
    Paul5%1%6%

    AMG poll of 400 registered Republicans, conducted September 17-18

    Trump's favorable rating was 62% among "Apprentice" viewers, while 27% offered unfavorable opinions. Among nonviewers he is barely above water: 37%-34% favorable to unfavorable.
    Apparently, playing an uber businessman and master manager for an hour a week on reality TV has an impact beyond what the jaundiced elites and punditocracy -- I'm raising my hand here -- were at first willing to concede.
    It doesn't mean Trump will be the Republican nominee or president. His mixed overall ratings among Republicans suggest that there is a cap on his poll numbers, which generally have stalled or diminished since the CNN debate at the Reagan Library earlier this month.
    There, it seemed, that Trump all but disappeared when the discussion turned to weightier subjects. And, judging from post debate numbers, Fiorina got the better of their face-off over his uncharitable comments about her face.

    The Reagan comparison

    Reagan himself benefited in politics from his years as a film and television star. But in today's era of limitless viewing choices, the audience Trump's show commanded paled by comparison to the numbers Reagan's "Death Valley Days" and "GE Theater" -- not to mention his many films -- turned in during a simpler time.
    And gifted as he was, it's still unthinkable that the Gipper would have made it to the end zone of presidential politics without the credential of eight years as the governor of populous California.
    Trump's 14 years of ritual firings on TV won't make him president.
    But his long tenure as helmsman of "The Apprentice" sure has fired up devotees of the show.
    I once thought The Donald might be running for president to boost his brand and his TV ratings.
    Looking at these numbers, it appears as if it's the other way around.