The debate winner may not have been onstage

By Richard Lee

With the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away, Democratic presidential candidates took part in a two-hour debate sponsored by CNN and the Des Moines Register on Jan. 14. But the candidate who may have fared best was not among the men or women who were onstage for the debate at Drake University.

While Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Steyer and Warren competed for screen time, traded barbs and snipes, and fielded questions from seasoned journalists, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the only guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which aired live after the debate. Bloomberg appeared on the show for nearly 15 minutes, taking mostly softball questions from a friendly Colbert.

Colbert is an entertainer and should not be held to the same standards as journalists. Nevertheless, his program reaches a large audience of potential voters. An appearance on The Late Show provides a benefit to any candidate, and that benefit is magnified when the appearance occurs as part of a live broadcast following a highly anticipated national debate.

Bloomberg took a page out of a campaign playbook written in 1992 when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton joined the house band on The Arsenio Hall Show and played a rousing version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone. The show was the first of several “soft news” appearances Clinton made in 1992 as part of an unusual campaign strategy to go around mainstream media and place the then-Arkansas governor in settings that better showcased his personality and his vision for America.

In his book Covering Clinton: The President and the Press in the 1990s, Joseph Hayden observed:

“What Clinton realized in 1992 was that soft-news exposure was just as helpful to his campaign as hard-news exposure: that being seen and heard were more important than being written about; and that televised contact with ordinary voters in low-key situations was more profitable than regular meetings with ‘professional’ journalists.”

Today, appearances on comedy and entertainment programs are key elements of campaign strategy. But in 1992, candidates who wanted to be taken seriously went on Meet the Press, Face the Nation and Nightline. They didn’t go on Arsenio Hall, and they certainly didn’t don sun glasses and rock out Elvis tunes with the band.

Clinton’s approach drew criticism from the inside-the-beltway crowd whose members argued that campaigns should be conducted in a more serious manner. But when the strategy proved successful, even its staunchest critics had to acknowledge that soft news exposure helped propel Clinton to the White House.

Nearly 30 years later, soft news appearances are an even greater factor in campaigns and elections, and in 2020 they are once again helping candidates on the road to the White House.

Richard Lee is executive director of the Jandoli Institute and an associate professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

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