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How CNN’s Town Hall Industrial Complex Is Shaping The 2020 Race

In the calm before 2020, FiveThirtyEight is taking a look at the ideas and people who are nudging the country’s rapidly changing political conversation in one direction or the other. We’re calling these people and ideas “nudgers.” (Creative, we know.) This installment takes a look at CNN’s televised town halls with presidential candidates.

There is an awful lot of appointment viewing for “political” Americans.

If you care about our democracy for reasons civic or contractual, there are, month to month and week to week, any number of live events that demand you tune in and turn on. Blockbuster congressional testimony. Debates. Press conferences of all stripes.

CNN’s presidential town halls are a newly viral addition to the “did you watch that?” industrial complex. There have already been 20 of these events, and most of the Democratic candidates who have said they’re running in 2020 have been featured. Started during the 2016 presidential primary cycle, the formula is simple: plug a candidate into a prime time (ish) slot, fill the room with likely voters armed with questions to read off of index cards, and make sure that a CNN anchor is on stage to keep everyone (relatively) honest. The questioners are polite and earnest — it’s not really a venue for heated follow-up — and candidates get the opportunity to perform empathetic conversation. They nod, repeat the name of the questioner, and then typically launch into a portion of their stump speech on any given topic. If the candidate has dodged a voter’s question, the CNN anchor often follows up with more pointed questions.

In these town halls, CNN has created a kind of petri dish for news at a time when candidates aren’t otherwise doing all that much that’s considered newsworthy. They haven’t radically reshaped the campaign, but they have given it some useful plot points.

Mark Preston, CNN’s executive director of political programming, told me that he’d long had the idea to do town halls but that things came together in earnest when he ran into a couple of Bernie Sanders advisers while getting a drink after a 2015 Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. “There was a lot of criticism of candidates on the Democratic side not being able to articulate their message beyond the debate stage, which was three or four people at a time,” he said. The Sanders aides seemed enthused about the prospect of a platform that gave their guy more time to talk.

The format as it exists today is a (better lit) re-creation of town halls in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. There, voters who are seemingly unimpressed by celebrity or wealth ask politicians pointed questions and watch them squirm. “The simplicity of it is beautiful in its own way,” Preston said, and gives national audiences the time and insights that usually only early-primary voters are afforded.

This time around, CNN’s presidential town halls began 22 months before the 2020 election and are a fascinating set of TV show gewgaws. They are not necessarily ratings gold — Fox News beat CNN on a recent night when the network aired back-to-back town halls with five different candidates — yet the town halls tend to move news cycles in the suffocatingly close-read environment of political journalism. Fox News has even begun aping the CNN format. The network hosted Sanders for a town hall and has announced plans to hold them for Democratic candidates Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar.

Eighteen months out from the presidential election, the clearest role that CNN’s town halls seem to be playing is as useful generator of what historian Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events” in his 1961 book, “The Image.” Boorstin had noticed a rise in news events that weren’t really news events at all in the classic sense of things. Rather than organic happenings like protests or confrontations, these pseudo-events were the creations of public relations professionals, artificial inflection points designed to help public figures get their messages out. (I recently saw an article reporting that public relations professionals now outnumber journalists 6 to 1. I wonder what Boorstin would have thought of that.)

As a political journalist, I’ve realized an unfortunate, stomach-dropping thing: An awful lot of what we cover is pseudo-events. Political conventions, speeches, candidates buying doughnuts in New Hampshire in front of 15 television cameras and five confused bystanders: It’s all manufactured. CNN’s innovation is its regular propagation of pseudo-events for the 2020 cycle — there are hordes of reporters at myriad news organizations assigned to the beat, each one marking time and looking for chum in the water.

So it’s no wonder that the town halls have become influential in driving the political news. Outlets from the left-leaning Young Turks to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze have done their own programming off the CNN town halls. News — of sorts — is often made during the broadcasts and picked up by political journalists who watch and punt it around Twitter. Elizabeth Warren said she’d like to get rid of the Electoral College in her March town hall. Sanders’s (previously stated) view that all felons should have the right to vote was discussed in his April town hall event and became the issue du jour. Kamala Harris was asked the same question and found herself doing next-day clarifications. Buttigieg saw a massive fundraising boost for his fledgling campaign from his first town hall — after explicitly asking for donations on air — and his standing in the polls rose after his appearance.

CNN itself churns out quite a bit of content off the town halls. There are thetakeaways,” the fact-checks and the stories following up on news made. Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, told me that the network’s digital team is on high alert during town halls. “By the time we go to bed, there are a half a dozen stories,” he said.

Not every candidate has gotten their shot at the town hall experience, though. After the five-town-hall night — which saw Klobuchar, Warren, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg all get their second event — Democratic presidential candidate Wayne Messam, the mayor of a Florida city with 140,000 residents, tweeted:

CNN did not provide comment when asked about Messam’s tweet.

Both Feist and Preston said the town halls are more than just contrived ways to juice the news cycle. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Preston told me. “I think that these Democratic candidates can drive the news cycle without CNN.” If anything, he said, the town halls are a way to prove to the viewers that the network is the home of substantive political coverage.

At least until the first Democratic debate in June — when candidates will finally be allowed on stage together — CNN owns a sizable chunk of the grill-the-presidential-hopeful market. The town halls are a sign, though, that the ghost of Boorstin is already haunting the 2020 presidential contest and is unlikely to leave. Masses of journalists will spend the next year and a half ferrying around the country, learning stump speeches by heart and dutifully tweeting scene reports for the interested masses. This, after all, is how we have settled on electing the most powerful person on Earth.

From ABC News:

1-on-1 with 2020 hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.