All campaign news is local: The real strategy behind the Trump and Biden visits to your town
By Elahe Izadi and Paul Farhi,
When President Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Allentown, Pa., on Monday, he made national news for claiming that the United States was “rounding the turn” on the coronavirus pandemic — a bizarre assertion just two days after the nation broke its record for the highest one-day number of new cases and several members of Vice President Pence’s staff tested positive.
Closer to the scene, it was a different news story.
“President Trump spoke to the crowd about the importance of voting on Election Day, his plans for the next four years, and the ongoing pandemic,” reported Scranton’s WNEP-TV. The ABC affiliate said Trump claimed that former vice president Joe Biden wants to “would do away with fracking.” In fact, Biden has said he does not oppose fracking — a big business in Pennsylvania — only new fracking on federal land, but the news segment did not provide that context.
There’s a reason the candidates have been spending so much time in places like Allentown — and it’s not just the face-time they get with the few thousand swing-state voters, at most, who might show up for their rallies.
Far more important is the chance to monopolize the attention of local media — who, unlike their national brethren, are less likely to highlight an outrageous statement or gaffe and more likely to focus on the straight campaign talking points candidates are desperate to hammer home. So campaigns plan candidates’ stops with the local press in mind and sometimes craft brief messages of strictly local import to generate “earned media,” or free publicity.
“You’re going to a media market where your pollster says, ‘We need to shore up things in that state,’ ” said longtime Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman. “There is a method to the madness. You’re not just throwing darts at the map.”
Political junkies obsessing over every revelation and swerve in national news coverage may underestimate the importance of local reporting for voters. More Americans trust local news sources than national ones, and they’re more likely to view local reporters — familiar faces, many of whom they may have seen in person around town — as more accurate and trustworthy than their counterparts at bigger media organizations, according to a 2019 Knight Foundation report.
And in most communities, a presidential candidate coming to town is easily the biggest news story of the day — even if the candidate isn’t saying anything particularly new.
On Monday, Trump made three campaign stops in Pennsylvania. While Fox News aired portions of one rally live for its national audience, an Allentown-area radio station and the WFMZ-TV noon newscast aired it in its entirety.
Brad Rinehart, news director of WFMZ, said it’s the station policy to provide live coverage of either party’s candidates when they come to town. “It’s unusual enough for any presidential candidate to visit our area that there is significant public interest in live coverage,” he said.
Trump’s visits dominated area print media as well. The Morning Call of Allentown, the largest newspaper in the Lehigh Valley, kept readers up to date on Monday’s traffic. Its front-page story the following day quoted enthusiastic rally attendees, highlighted Trump’s attack on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and explained conspiracy theories behind some of Trump’s pandemic shutdown claims.
The Trump events on Monday came after Biden visited the state last weekend, hosting a morning drive-in rally in Bucks County with his wife, Jill, a native of neighboring Montgomery County (as local news outlets pointed out). He did an interview with KYW, Philadelphia’s CBS-owned station, immediately afterward, which the station promoted as an “exclusive.” This, too, is a typical campaign strategy — offering interviews that require little of the candidate’s time, and granting exclusive access to the highest-rated station in a market.
Trump supporters attend a campaign event in Allentown, Pa.
The Washington Post
People cheer Biden in Chester, Pa.
Stations with exclusive access tend to promote the interviews more, which means a candidate’s face and voice will dominate the station’s newscasts that day, upstaging his opponent’s presence in the news cycle.
Biden said in his KYW interview that he does not support defunding the police, that he was “not talking about eliminating fracking” and that, if elected, he would ask all governors to implement a mask mandate. The exchange didn’t break new ground — such local interviews rarely do — but that hardly mattered. The station aired parts of the interview several times and posted the clip to its website.
While in Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania, near Biden’s hometown of Scranton, the Biden campaign hosted a drive-in rally featuring rock star Jon Bon Jovi, whose mini-concert included acoustic versions of songs like “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Celebrity appearances are a surefire local media magnet, but they have been rare this campaign season due to the pandemic. Bon Jovi, who repeatedly touted Biden (as a man of “empathy, character and experience”), attracted news reports from the local Times-Leader newspaper and the ABC affiliate, among others.
Trump and his surrogates have also been granting local TV interviews before and after campaign stops, like the “exclusive” his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., gave to an affiliate in Tampa.
There’s still a question whether “earned media” is as effective as the paid kind — the political ads that flood TV stations and social media feeds during the latter stages of a campaign. Spending on political advertising in this race has far exceeded what was spent by the campaigns in 2016. Oxman, the political consultant, suggests news stories aren’t as valuable as they once were.
“There’s so much money now that this stuff really becomes second to the political ads on the air,” he contended.
Trump has made it clear he values the attention of local media.
“These are the greatest stories. It’s like, unbelievable,” he told conservative pundit Mark Levin on Fox News in September. “They cover it so good — actually, they’re almost more enthusiastic than I am. And so, we have that, we have some honest media. Fox is good, but Fox is not what it was, I’ll be very honest with you.”
Yet this year, Trump has faced tougher questioning from local TV affiliates over his campaign strategy involves holding large, in-person events with varied mask usage and no social distancing. Biden has opted for virtual or smaller, in-person gatherings.
Charles Benson, an anchor for Milwaukee NBC affiliate WTMJ-TV, pushed Trump on the fact that his own coronavirus task force warned that not adhering to mask-wearing and social-distancing recommendations will lead to “preventable deaths.” “Your own public health experts are saying holding rallies right now is not a good thing,” Benson said to Trump. “Aren’t you sending the wrong message by holding them?” (Benson also interviewed Biden last month).
A similar theme has emerged in a number of local headlines as local reporters follow the public-health impact of Trump’s in-person campaigning on their communities. His massive Tuesday night Omaha rally generated negative local coverage after hundreds of attendees spent hours in near-freezing temperatures waiting for campaign buses.
His rally in Wisconsin that night also generated local headlines that were probably not what the campaign had in mind when they scheduled the trip. Said a headline in the La Crosse Tribune: “On Wisconsin’s worst day of the pandemic, thousands pack in at West Salem racetrack for Trump Rally.”