California Sen. Kamala Harris created a viral moment at former Vice President Joe Biden’s expense Thursday, hitting him on his 1970s record on busing and linking it to her personal story of being bused to integrated schools as a girl in Berkeley.
She even drove it home with a catchphrase now being printed on T-shirts for $29.99: “That little girl was me.”
With that, Harris won the most precious commodity for a candidate, one political scientists say is most directly linked to poll results: media attention. The question now is how long she can sustain it in a sprawling Democratic field as 23 other candidates vie for airtime on TV, digital news outlets, and social media.
“More media coverage almost always generates increases in a candidate’s poll standing, and that almost always generates increased media coverage,” said Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA and co-author of books dissecting each of the past two presidential elections. “They’re mutually reinforcing, and that relationship is robust.”
First, there needs to be a catalyst — a change in information that sets off the chain reaction. And Harris forced the issue on Thursday night before a live audience expected to easily surpass 10 million viewers.
The flashpoint helped her trend on Twitter and spike in Google searches. Her team immediately pushed out the quote, coupled with a photo of Harris as a child, on her social media accounts.
“I hope I made you proud during last night’s debate,” Harris added in a fundraising email to supporters Friday.
Harris’ polling average has consistently hovered around fourth place among Democrats, and the data firm Zignal Labs told VICE News that she similarly registered the fourth-most mentions by online news outlets between April 1 and June 1. Her performance Thursday changed that. Zignal Labs’ real-time analysis suggests that Harris has been mentioned in media coverage Friday nearly double the number of times as any other candidate.
Such surges have proven key to Democrats as they mount challenges to Biden, who dominates traditional news coverage, and Sanders, who drives unmatched engagement among his followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg joined the second-tier of primary candidates in part through a flood-the-zone media strategy that emphasized his personal identity and likability. Sen. Elizabeth Warren more recently ignited a media boomlet by releasing a string of policy proposals that drew sustained, positive coverage. Data from the analytics firm Parse.ly, which measures audience attention across digital media, suggest that the demand for articles that mention Warren’s name has consistently increased over the past month.
“It’s a competition for airtime.”
Whether there’s enough attention to go around for other candidates remains an open question. Take Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who’ve found themselves on the outside looking in for the first act of the 2020 media circus. They’re both trying to convert breakout debate performances into consistent media coverage, which tends to be far more valuable than advertising.
“We're going to work to continue to build momentum,” Castro told reporters in the spin room Wednesday night. “I don't want to be a flash in the pan candidate.”
It’s exceedingly difficult not to be, as the past two Republican primaries have shown.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) galloped into the 2012 race with oodles of name recognition. And a revolving chorus of challengers tried and failed to dislodge him in a succession of media spurts: then-Rep. Michelle Bachmann; pizza magnate Herman Cain; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Ray Sullivan, communications director for another also-ran, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, compared the attempts to hack the Romney-centric news cycle to a reality TV show.
“It was very challenging to get attention — certainly sustained attention.”
“You just went from one episode to another, and it was very challenging to get attention — certainly sustained attention,” Sullivan said.
In retrospect, Sullivan said, Perry should have embraced the media frenzy rather than run an old-school PR strategy around set-pieces like stump speeches and debates. It left the gaffe-prone candidate vulnerable as mainstream media scrutinized his record and increasingly shaped the narrative around his campaign.
“Frankly, I wanted to avoid the opportunity for any stumbles right out of the gate,” Sullivan said of avoiding many early cable appearances, including on Fox News. “That ultimately was probably not the right approach.”
Trump had an even greater stranglehold on media attention in 2016, making it all but impossible for other candidates to get a word in. When Alex Conant ran the communications shop for Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign, staffers prepared Monday-morning roundups of how many times media outlets had mentioned each candidate in the previous seven days. “I viewed it as my weekly report card,” said Conant, now a partner at Firehouse Strategies. Failing grades were the norm.
While Rubio and other candidates hit the trail in early primary states and built out traditional campaign infrastructure, Trump called in to TV shows and held cartoonish rallies carried live by cable news. Cascading media coverage of scandals ensured that Trump sucked up all the oxygen — even as coverage turned overwhelmingly negative.
“When Marco made fun of Trump’s hands, that got more media attention than anything else we did during the entire campaign,” Conant said. “But it was about Trump!”
In the face of a similar string of controversies — his history on race, treatment of Anita Hill, and penchant for being handsy — Biden has taken the opposite approach: media silence. That slow build-up of pressure likely helped Harris lay the smackdown on Biden Thursday night and rip media attention away from the rest of a crowded field.
“[Trump] viewed it accurately in that it’s not a competition for votes,” Conant said of primary season. “It’s a competition for airtime.”
Cover: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)