By David Bauder
AP Television Writer
The 19 sanctioned presidential debates – so far – haven’t been enough. Town hall meetings with candidates are popping up like mushrooms on the schedules of television networks, anxious for political programming at a time viewers’ appetites seem voracious.
Formats vary, but the theory behind the town halls is to have candidates address questions posed by voters. Usually the candidates are onstage without their opponents, although some town halls have candidates on back-to-back.
“Voters are engaged,” said Dafna Linzer, managing editor of politics at NBC News and MSNBC. “The town halls, at least for us, offer voters a good sense of the candidates. Not every voter is a New Hampshire or Iowa voter that gets candidates to come in and sit on their sofa.”
The 2016 campaign has been a boon to networks, as a glance at the wall-to-wall coverage on CNN, Fox and MSNBC illustrates. The 11th Republican debate was the most-watched program on all of TV last week, the Nielsen company said. Fox News is on a seven-week winning streak as the top-rated cable network, its longest ever. The networks stoke the excitement by running “countdown clocks” to the next primary results.
Each of the five town halls shown by CNN has reached between 2.2 million and 3.2 million viewers; the network’s prime-time average last year was 812,000.
While the debates are the subject of intense negotiations over rules and format, town halls are relatively easy to put together. The candidates are less on edge, since they’re spending less time addressing sharp questions from journalists and responding to attacks from their opponents.
During a CNN town hall last month, a woman with five daughters and stepdaughters in their 20s told Hillary Clinton that the young women were “feeling the Bern.” What could the woman do to convince them that Clinton, and not Bernie Sanders, was worth their vote?
“It was a very human moment,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s senior vice president and Washington bureau chief. “It was something that could have never been asked that way by an interviewer and have the same impact.”
When the voters ask questions, “they usually have a story to tell,” he said.
Feist grew up in New England, where town hall meetings have a deep history. He tends to be more of a traditionalist by giving voters the largest role in these events; some competitors give more of a spotlight to their moderators.
CNN’s next town meeting involves the Democratic candidates today from Columbus.
During a Democratic forum on MSNBC last fall, Rachel Maddow showed the candidates pictures of themselves in much younger days and asked what was going through their minds then. “It’s definitely a different vibe,” Linzer said, and a chance for more personal insights than usually come through in debates.
“It’s more freewheeling, there’s more time and it’s not as pressurized,” said veteran campaign consultant Mark McKinnon, co-host of the Showtime series “The Circus.” “Because it’s more informal, it allows them to show their human side. They can unwind a little and contextualize and go beyond a 30-second answer.
“It’s good for the candidates and it’s good for the networks,” McKinnon said.
Viral moments are a possibility. On Monday, Fox’s Bret Baier interrupted Sanders’ advocacy of universal health care to ask, “where does that right come from?”
“From being a human being,” Sanders replied.
That’s right – a Democratic candidate on Fox News. After Sanders committed to Baier’s town hall, Clinton agreed to join him for her first appearance on the network during the campaign. Party committees have not granted Fox a Democratic debate, or MSNBC a Republican debate. But the town halls have opened the door to candidates to address network audiences they usually don’t reach. MSNBC has had forums with Donald Trump, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
This is a particularly opportune time in the campaign for the town halls. The crowded Republican lineup last fall made organizing the events more difficult, and now things have narrowed, Feist said. Candidates are anxious for the exposure with primaries coming each week and are often in close proximity, campaigning in the same states.
When the nominees for each party become clear, that window will likely close.