National News

Never Mind the News Media: Politicians Test Direct-to-Voter Messaging

Posted May 31, 2018 11:21 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders seemed nervous. In just two hours, he would conduct a livestreamed town hall event on the Iran nuclear deal, and he still hadn’t nailed his opening.

“Did you mention to somebody doing a history of U.S.-Iranian relations?” he asked aides who had gathered in his Senate office to help him prepare. “What do you think about starting with that?” Then he wanted to say something about Saudi Arabia. Then Israel.

In another room, staff members rushed to finalize last-minute details. “We convert into a small production company,” one aide joked.

The town hall meeting in mid-May came off seamlessly, before a modest live audience at the Capitol Visitor Center. Sanders scripted the evening’s event, interviewed panelists and directed the conversation. There were no nettlesome questions from television or newspaper reporters. And over the next two weeks the real target audience — online viewers — would show up in droves, with some 800,000 people watching it.

The event provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the grass-roots efforts Sanders has become known for, as his team revved up its campaign engine: A week later, Sanders would announce his bid for re-election to the Senate. The democratic socialist from Vermont is also widely believed to be considering another run for president in 2020.

But the Iran discussion also reflected the kind of direct-to-voter messaging strategy that has become increasingly common among politicians — both as a way to shape information about their goals and to avoid difficult questions from the news media, particularly in the midst of scandal or controversy. From Washington to Texas to California, politicians are road-testing their political messaging strategies, searching for the best way to reach voters in ways that often bypass the traditional media gatekeepers.

The Iran town hall event would be the third Sanders has held this year; more than 1 million people viewed the first, on health care, and roughly 2.5 million watched the second, on inequality, according to Sanders’ team.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, both running this year, have started podcasts, with humanizing names like “Canarycast” and “Plaidcast.” Rep. Devin Nunes of California has his own local news site, The California Republican, which is paid for by his campaign committee. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat making a long-shot bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is streaming his entire campaign live on Facebook. And many other politicians are now routinely Instagramming and Facebooking, tweeting and Snapchatting.

These media methods have obvious appeal: Politicians can appear accessible but remain insulated from the press. They are also not altogether new. President Donald Trump eschewed traditional television advertising during the 2016 campaign and can now overshadow even his own party’s message at the drop of a tweet. And many politicians have long made a practice of ducking reporters.

Yet several factors have converged to elevate the practice: Fake news and false information about politics have proliferated; the public’s trust in the mainstream media is low; and social media platforms make unfiltered messaging easier than ever. As a result, there is a new urgency among politicians to deliver talking points directly. Some two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news on social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

“Bernie and others are trying to find other ways that they can more directly connect with people,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic “super PAC.”

Many politicians blame the news media for the shift, claiming dishonest coverage has left them no other choice.

“For those of you who want to truly see what is happening, follow along through social media,” Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a Republican and a prolific purveyor of Facebook videos, told voters during his state of the commonwealth address last year. “With all due respect to what now passes for traditional media, it’s dying for a reason.”

Last month, after Bevin suggested to reporters that teachers joining walkout protests were leaving children vulnerable to sexual assault, he issued an apology not in a press statement or at a news conference, but in a video that he posted on Facebook and Twitter. “A tremendous number of people did not fully appreciate what it was that I was communicating,” he said.

The tactic has vexed many of the state’s journalists, who say they have been largely shut out. “He doesn’t like to be questioned,” Al Cross, who teaches journalism at the University of Kentucky and is a columnist and former chief political reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal, said in an interview.

“Politicians have always wanted to control the message — they’ve always wanted to dominate the talk,” he said. “In a media environment where you have all kinds of platforms on which to play — only a few of which you have to submit yourself to questions by reporter — then sure, you’re going to use those platforms.” Then there are the politicians who talk mostly, if not exclusively, to friendly reporters, in a different kind of direct appeal to voters.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, another possible 2020 presidential candidate, hardly ever answers questions from reporters in the corridors of the Capitol but makes ample time to chat with Rachel Maddow, the left-leaning MSNBC anchor whose viewers are mostly liberal. (Warren is also a Facebook user; last year, after she was blocked from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor, she livestreamed herself reading the letter instead.)

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada often avoids reporters by taking a back staircase to the chamber for votes. And Gov. Paul LePage of Maine, a notorious press basher who once said he wanted to blow up the Portland newspaper, has made frequent appearances on talk-radio stations to deliver his opinions, often without significant pushback.

In an interview before his town hall meeting, as he shuttled between his office and the Senate chamber for afternoon votes, Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, stressed the need for the party to rely less on the news media.

“There’s Tim Kaine talking to some of the Beltway media, and that’s good,” Sanders said, exiting an elevator. “You’ll see people like me going on CNN Sunday, yesterday — blah blah blah — all of that’s useful.”

“But,” he added, “I think Democrats have got to understand that some of the most important issues facing our country are not going to be really talked about on television in the way that they should be.” His personal style of connecting with voters outside the traditional party apparatus has endeared him to many enthusiastic, young supporters. But it also affords him the patina of approachability while allowing him to evade tough questions from the news media.

In early 2016, for instance, he was harshly criticized for stumbling through an interview with The New York Daily News' editorial board. And during the interview this month, as he strode back to his office, Sanders bristled when asked about his son, who is running for Congress in New Hampshire. “What does that have to do with why you’re here tonight?” he asked, before requesting to go off the record.

For all of his dissatisfaction, Sanders has often acknowledged the power of traditional media — he wondered aloud if the Iran event would be picked up by CNN or MSNBC. On stage that night this month, however, he was back to pooh-poohing the press.

“The reason we do these town meetings is we think the American people are a little bit smarter than the corporate media thinks they are,” he told a crowd of more than 150 supporters, who had braved a raging thunderstorm to attend.

He did not take questions.