Bernie Sanders is one of a small group of 2020 Democratic contenders generating the bulk of media attention.
Never mind the chatter about 20 or 25 Democrats running for the presidential nomination in 2020. In the media primary — the scramble for newspaper headlines, TV hits and social media mentions — there are only six or seven contenders.
Next year, when candidates will likely need to meet a polling threshold to claim a place in the critical early debates, that ability to generate media attention will be more important than ever. And over the past three months, the candidates creating the bulk of it — Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, lawyer Michael Avenatti and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — have dominated the discussion.
More than two-thirds of a burgeoning field’s traditional online print media mentions — and nearly three-quarters of its social media output — have been about those 2020 prospects, according to a data analysis conducted for POLITICO by the media intelligence company Meltwater.
Though a prospective candidate’s media mentions are not necessarily tied to a presidential campaign, as in Avenatti’s high-profile representation of porn star Stormy Daniels, the heavy focus on a small group of contenders threatens to shape the race before it begins in earnest, with the prospect of sidelining some potential candidacies before they even launch.
“If the national press doesn’t consider you serious, you’re doomed,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008. “The reality is that in any presidential race, the better known candidates have an advantage.”
Sanders, who lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, now leads the field of potential 2020 candidates in mentions on traditional news sites, appearing in nearly 114,000 articles over the past three months, according to a Meltwater analysis of hundreds of thousands of print and online broadcast news sources ranging from CNN to the Washington Post to small outlets in rural Iowa.
Biden, Avenatti and Warren were all mentioned in at least 70,000 articles, while Harris and Booker came up at least 50,000 times.
That reach reflects — and also feeds — their higher national profiles. But for lesser-known prospects — such as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro — it could throttle their fundraising. Each of them appeared in fewer than 10,000 articles online, along with John Delaney, the Maryland congressman who has been running for president since last year.
A candidates’ penetration in the news media in part reflects the fickle tendencies of the press. But at the moment, the 2020 candidates who are winning news coverage are also dominating the social media landscape, leaving little room for lesser-known contenders to find an alternative platform for exposure.
While media saturation “doesn’t produce votes,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist in California, “press attention creates an opening for a candidate.”
There’s no better example than Avenatti, who burst into public view representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her legal entanglements with Trump. The Los Angeles attorney — who has never held elected office — appeared in more social media posts during the past three months than any other prospective candidate, according to a Meltwater analysis of Facebook, Twittter, Instagram, Reddit and other social media sources.
Following Avenatti in social media share are Sanders, Warren and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has become a media and fundraising sensation in his effort to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
Two years after the last presidential election, Democrats still grimace at the effect that national exposure can have on a campaign. In the 2016 Republican primary, then-candidate Donald Trump benefited from nonstop news coverage, even before most observers considered him a serious contender.
In recent months, top-tier Democrats have spent freely to cultivate followings online, while competing for traditional media coverage surrounding flashpoints in Washington — from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings to immigration and health care policy.
Meltwater executive John Box said that for candidates running in 2020, “managing the interplay between what drives the viral moments on social — which is increasingly becoming a primary source of information for certain voters — and what gets traction in today’s news cycle will be key to standing out.”
Harris drew widespread attention for her questioning of Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings, while Sanders benefitted from Amazon’s announcement that it would begin paying hundreds of thousands of workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour. According to Meltwater, Biden drew his most news mentions following his eulogy for Sen. John McCain.
Yet the full weight of traditional and social media tends to shift during a presidential campaign, often abruptly — and it’s not always a positive.
Warren’s biggest news day came the day this month that she released DNA results to support past claims of Native American ancestry — a highly choreographed event that was widely panned.
Avenatti’s mentions spiked surrounding his representation of Kavanaugh accuser Julie Swetnick, a role some Democrats criticized as distracting from Kavanagh’s main accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
“Paris Hilton has high name ID, too,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “You have to have both high name ID and be a credible candidate for president.”
Former Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, who briefly ran for president in 2008, said it is “way too early” to draw conclusions about the 2020 primary based on media exposure.
“If you call me in January or February of next year, then by then, people will be engaged, people will have announced, we’ll have a good sense of who’s serious and who isn’t,” said Vilsack, a former secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration.
For now, said Vilsack, who briefly ran for president in 2008, “We don’t know these people. We see them on TV.”
But with the primary campaign expected to begin in earnest immediately after the midterm elections next week, a reckoning s does not appear far off.
Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and former Biden speechwriter, said primary debates next year could “change the equation” for candidates not now gaining traction in the media.
But from now until the primary begins to gel is “really not a very long process,” Littman said.
“At a certain point, so many people are going to be fighting for so little time to get exposure,” Littman said. “So the people who are already out there, I think it’s smart … If you’re out there, people start to talk about you.”