CNN town halls put network at center of Dem primary

Four years after blistering criticism of its blanket and passive coverage of then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE's campaign rallies, CNN has taken a more active role in the 2020 Democratic primary, hosting town hall meetings that have already changed the course of the race.

The town hall meetings are huge hits with candidates, especially those who begin the contest little-known outside of elite political circles, and even with media critics who blasted all three cable news networks for airing Trump rallies live.

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CNN has hosted 10 candidates and potential candidates so far, beginning with an event with then-Rep. Beto O'RourkeRobert (Beto) Francis O'RourkePoll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump team fights back over Dem subpoena 2020 Dems back repeal of controversial New Hampshire voting law MORE (D-Texas) in October, about three weeks before he lost his bid against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Liberal survey: Sanders cruising, Buttigieg rising Overnight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for buying Iranian oil | At least four Americans killed in Sri Lanka attacks | Sanders pushes for Yemen veto override vote MORE (R).

On Wednesday, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) got his star turn; Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerHarris adds another to her list of endorsements in South Carolina The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics 2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal MORE (D-N.J.) is up next, scheduled to appear on Wednesday in Orangeburg, S.C.

Other events are certain, though the network has not announced future plans. 

As candidates scramble to qualify for Democratic primary debates beginning in just three months, the town halls provide a critical hourlong chance to introduce oneself to a national audience, an opportunity to vault up the polling charts and to gather donors from across the country.

When South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced he would consider a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, he earned a handful of news stories in outlets around the country and some live shots on cable news networks.

Two months later, when he castigated Vice President Pence for supporting the “porn star presidency” during a CNN town hall meeting at South by Southwest, interest in the 37-year-old mayor spiked. Google trends data showed searches related to Buttigieg rose to levels more than twice as high as when he announced his White House bid.

A day later, Buttigieg's campaign announced it received donations from more than 65,000 Americans, a key threshold a candidate must reach to enter the debate stage this summer.

Lis Smith, an adviser to the Buttigieg campaign, called the televised town hall, held at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, “a game changer for Pete and for the exploratory committee.”

“It brought the fundraising and interest in him to another level in very measurable ways.”

The town hall meetings have come together in just a few days, sources with knowledge of previous town halls said.

That follows CNN's model set last February, when the network set up a town hall meeting with students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School just nine days after a gunman killed 17 people at the Parkland, Fla., school.

The CNN town halls are another reflection of the high interest in politics in the Trump era, though they have varied widely in terms of cable news ratings.

Two million viewers tuned in to watch Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Trump Jr. slams 2020 Dems as 'more concerned' about rights of murderers than legal gun owners MORE (D-Calif.) answer voters' questions in Iowa — but a CNN town hall featuring former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz finished with lower ratings than simultaneous shows on Fox News and MSNBC. 

The ratings are good enough that other networks have taken note. MSNBC held its first town hall this week, featuring Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandGillibrand pledges not to use 'stolen hacked' materials in 2020 campaign 2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal Where 2020 Democratic candidates stand on impeachment MORE (D-N.Y.) in Michigan. That event led to more internet searches for information about Gillibrand than on any day since she announced her bid in January.

Buttigieg's moment in the spotlight illustrates the cornerstone of the early campaign season the town hall meetings have become, and the necessity of seizing an opportunity in a crowded field in which media oxygen is scarce and competition for attention is fierce.

It also shows the requirements that a top-tier modern presidential candidate must bring to the table, alternately rousing on the stump, empathetic to an individual questioner and deft at handling the unexpected.

“In the dark ages, everyone said so-and-so is a good retail candidate, or so-and-so is very good at communication, or a good media candidate,” said Bill Carrick, a veteran of several Democratic presidential campaigns. “Now the skill set is so much more involved.”

With just days to organize a complex and technical television event, CNN typically works with local Democratic parties and groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to build an audience, according to one source who had been involved in planning a previous town hall.

The town halls are a stark contrast to cable news coverage of the 2016 campaign, when CNN, MSNBC and Fox News aired live and unedited Trump rallies, great for ratings but of little journalistic value.

“These town halls seem very different to me than the uncritical and incessant coverage that CNN gave to Trump rallies in 2016,” said Samuel Freedman, a professor and journalistic ethics expert at the Columbia Journalism School. “There is a totally legitimate public service being provided by a cable network in holding town halls with individual candidates — especially when the Democratic field is so crowded and so few of the candidates are well-known nationally.”

Republican strategists working for other candidates — and, later, those who backed 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rips Krugman, NYT after columnist writes GOP no longer believes in American values Klobuchar jokes to Cuomo: 'I feel you creeping over my shoulder' but 'not in a Trumpian manner' Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment MORE — screamed at network executives, irate that their candidates would be dropped to show Trump bounding on stage — or even an empty podium.

“In 2016 there was a lot of criticism that there wasn't enough coverage of 'lesser' candidates on the GOP side, and this is one way the media is trying to preempt that criticism for a very crowded Democratic field,” said Leticia Bode, a political scientist at Georgetown University who studies the confluence of communication and political outcomes.

A CNN source, who asked not to be named discussing internal procedures, said the network invites candidates who have demonstrated they are running a serious campaign, though invitations are offered on a case-by-case basis. The network tries to find a location that works with the campaign's schedule, often on just a few days' notice.

CNN has not held an event with O'Rourke since he announced his presidential campaign, and not every candidate has been on the air. Gillibrand, who kicked off MSNBC's town hall series, has not gotten a CNN slot yet. Neither has Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and a handful of other candidates toward the bottom of the polling ladder. Those candidates may get future invitations, the source said.

The events take on an added importance in the run-up to the first Democratic debates, scheduled for NBC in June and CNN in July. Candidates must reach several thresholds — the 65,000 individual donors and notching at least 1 percent support in three different polls — to be included on the debate stage. 

For a candidate like Buttigieg, barely known among even elite Democrats before he launched his bid, scoring an hour on prime-time television is the opportunity that candidates running in earlier years never had.

“It was a masterful decision by CNN to give candidates an hour to communicate directly with people,” Buttigieg's adviser Smith said. “Doing these town halls isn't without a risk, especially if you're not prepared for them.”

The preparation goes beyond simply making sure candidates brush up on the issues. While the town halls earn a few million viewers watching live, clips are replayed endlessly in the days after the events, both on CNN and their two main cable rivals. The campaigns themselves also cut up key moments to blast to supporters, potential donors and Facebook audiences.

Buttigieg's campaign organized more than 120 watch parties in 37 states, where the mayor's most committed supporters tried to wrangle donations out of friends and neighbors.

They got the donors — and the polling. In an Emerson College poll conducted a week after Buttigieg's town hall, he took 3 percent of the vote, tied with Booker for sixth in the Democratic field. It is the third poll this month to show Buttigieg hitting the 1 percent threshold, enough to qualify him for the debate stage.