Not your ‘grandfather’s’ campaign: 2020 Dems look to stand out in crowded race

Democratic candidates for 2020 are looking for new ways to get attention when they join the presidential race.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Suburban moms are going to decide the 2020 election Jon Stewart urges Congress to help veterans exposed to burn pits MORE (N.Y.), the newest candidate to announce a 2020 run, appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show to announce her decision. Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownMnuchin says he and Pelosi have agreed to restart coronavirus stimulus talks Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle Remote work poses state tax challenges MORE (Ohio) went on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show to announce a “tour” through the key early states Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. And Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service MORE (Mass.) sought to get a jump on the competition with a New Year’s Eve announcement.

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And even would-be candidates who aren’t yet in the race are looking to garner headlines and cable news footage by thinking outside the box as they face the potential of a long and crowded primary.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who has been compared to former President Obama, is blogging about a solo road trip outside his home state as he weighs a presidential bid, and he will sit down for a conversation with Oprah Winfrey in Times Square next month. When he went to the dentist for a teeth-cleaning last week, he used the opportunity to do an Instagram Live so viewers could catch every moment.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s presidential campaign announcement season that was focused on just getting some traditional earned media,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist.

“The Democratic candidates are smartly getting on the ground in front of local people and press, having a big social media push and presence, and getting on late-night shows and other outlets that people who don’t follow politics every day are watching.”

Of the roughly half-dozen Democrats that have entered the race so far, only two have held formal press conferences, a sign that presidential hopefuls are eschewing the grand campaign announcements that once defined White House races.

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Warren spoke to reporters outside her home in Cambridge, Mass., on New Year’s Eve after announcing the formation of an exploratory committee in an email to supporters and releasing a biographical video that recounted her
middle-class upbringing in Oklahoma.

Julián Castro, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary, held a press conference to formally announce his 2020 bid last weekend, but only after unveiling the creation of an exploratory committee in a short video a month earlier.

The slew of brief — and notably more casual — campaign announcements is reflective of the realities of the 2020 primary cycle, which could draw upwards of two dozen candidates.

With so many people weighing White House bids, prospective candidates will have to vie aggressively for sought-after media attention, multiple Democrats said.

“These things are going to be a dime a dozen,” said one Democratic strategist involved in planning a presidential campaign. “There’s going to be one or two a week. It’s not getting in — it’s finding a way to be in the marathon.”

Another Democratic strategist, Brad Bannon, said that the potential for a long and crowded primary underscores the “need to be creative, because an announcement may be the candidate’s only chance to get media face time for a long time.”

“A traditional announcement speech or video speech might have been sufficient before, but now you need something extraordinary to have an impact,” he said.

Bannon pointed to O’Rourke’s scheduled interview with Winfrey as having standout potential if the former congressman chooses to enter the 2020 race.

“A Beto O’Rourke announcement during an interview with Oprah could blow everybody else out of the water,” he said.

To be sure, campaign rollouts via television hits and web videos aren’t unprecedented. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates Divided country, divided church TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE, the former senator and secretary of State who won the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nomination, announced plans to form an exploratory committee on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in late 2002.

Obama, whose campaign was hailed by political observers for its aggressive digital operation, announced the creation of an exploratory committee in a plainly produced video posted to his website in the early days of 2007.

And long before that, former President Clinton boosted his star power with a saxophone performance of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on “The Arsenio Hall Show” shortly after securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

But each of those candidates also put on more traditional announcement events — closely watched press conferences amid grand backdrops.

“The days of a traditional launch rally are mostly behind us,” said one Democratic consultant watching the race.

“We still will see that from most candidates in one way or another, but there are so many tools at our disposal, so many different venues to reach mass audiences beyond earned media alone, and we’re going to see every campaign trying to out-innovate the others.”

Another reality that Democratic hopefuls face is the wall-to-wall media coverage surrounding President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE, who dominated news cycles during his 2016 campaign and still draws round-the-clock attention.

“Anticipating a crowded field, 2020 candidates will have to distinguish themselves from each other in more creative ways,” Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFox News poll: Biden ahead of Trump in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio Trump, Biden court Black business owners in final election sprint The power of incumbency: How Trump is using the Oval Office to win reelection MORE and served as the executive director of the New York Democratic Party.

“But it also underscores the stiff competition for voter attention in the age of Trump, who tends to dominate media attention.”

Justin Holmes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, said that turning to nontraditional outlets can help candidates play up their strengths, while overcoming their weaknesses.

“You think of someone like Gillibrand, doing a late-night announcement is helpful, because she’s not necessarily someone with a huge national profile,” he said. “For the average American, she doesn’t have that same name recognition."

Holmes said that the growing reliance on online announcements and late-night show rollouts reflects a larger societal shift toward digital platforms.

Adapting to those changes, he said, may be especially important for Democrats, whose voters tend to be younger and more inclined to turn to social media for information over traditional news networks.

“One of the real challenges of campaigning in the current era is where to go for eyeballs,” Holmes said. “The audience for the nightly national news is smaller nowadays and so you need to do something a little splashy to get attention — something like going on ‘The Late Show.’ People watch that.”


--Reid Wilson contributed to this report.