Can town halls change the Democrats' race?
Wednesday night, my wife and I attended a Fox News Channel town hall in Milwaukee for Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator and presidential candidate.
The senator currently stands in eighth place in the race, registering an average of just over 1% in a collection of polls, meaning she has not exactly gotten off to a flying start. Even worse, while Klobuchar has been trying to sell herself as a sensible progressive alternative to a bunch of crazier and more "out there" competitors, the entrance of Joe Biden into the race, competing in the same space, has diminished her chances of a breakout.
Of course, Biden is prone to self-destruction, and we may be at peak Biden in the race.
In any case, Klobuchar appearing on Fox News Channel's town hall was a smart move, since she likely drew an audience of 2–2.5 million, by far the biggest group of people who will have a chance to see her for a decent length of time prior to the debates in two months. The senator packed the hall with a few hundred supporters, who clapped on queue to every one of her answers, probably taking 5–10 minutes of airtime away from the program.
If her poll numbers jump a point or two, she might pass Cory Booker and move into seventh place, but nobody will consider her to have any kind of momentum. Even if Biden's numbers drop off, he will still be comfortably ahead of Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, both of whom seem to be mainly in the moderate lane, while also trying to send comforting signals to progressives. Bernie Sanders has seen some drop-off in his numbers and is now well behind Biden, after calling for providing voting rights for imprisoned murderers, rapists, and terrorists, but he still is well ahead of his competitors on the Left, Elizabeth Warren and chameleons Kamala Harris and Beto O'Rourke, though Warren seems to have gained a bit from Sanders.
The Democrats plan to handle their unwieldy field of 22 candidates by holding debates over two nights, ten candidates per night, but not divide them into a top ten and a kiddie table, as Republicans did in 2016. Instead, both the contenders and the long shots with near-zero polling numbers might be on the same night, and the two leading contenders may be on different nights. This is a risk for Biden if a "nobody" in the race embarrasses him on the debate stage, a real possibility.
I had audience tickets and had submitted questions beforehand as part of the process to obtain tickets. I received an email letting me know I was one of those selected to ask a question, assuming there was enough time in the hour-long program to get to me. Regrettably, moderator Bret Baier pre-empted me by asking two of the possible questions I could have asked. Many of the audience members who asked questions were of college age or just beyond, some of them students at Milwaukee universities. The excitement some of the young people experienced getting called on and being on TV was palpable.
Putting on a town hall is a major operation. Over 150 people were flown in from New York, along with an 18-wheeler with equipment driven out from New York. Dozens more who work to prepare the Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum programs were also there, flying in from D.C. and New York.
The real stars at an event like this are the FNC moderators, as much as the candidate, who might be back in the Senate in a few months, just one of a hundred whom few notice. But the moderators, probably for years to come, will continue to have their programs on the top-rated cable news network FNC and the attention that Hollywood stars receive when they are on set.
Klobuchar spent quite a bit of time chatting with audience members after the town hall. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Klobuchar is not avoiding Wisconsin. Of course, since Hillary now claims that the election was stolen from her, it must be that the state's ten Electoral College votes were lost due to Russian forces blocking all paths into the state in 2016.
It was a busy night for the hosts. MacCallum left the stage immediately after the town hall to host the second half-hour of her program on the balcony in the same building, just as Baier had done for the half-hour before the town hall.
Live television is not easy, especially with video feeds and commercial breaks mixed in with the Q-and-A, with both audience members and moderators at times being the questioner. Dennis Miller once said watching Al Michaels handle Monday night football was like watching a genius at work. News programs can be easier on the host if the moderator just bloviates for an hour — say, like Rachel Maddow — than it is for hosts who have genuine interaction with guests like Baier and MacCallum.