Debunking The Meme: Pete Buttigieg

Debunking The Meme: Pete Buttigieg


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Tony Panaccio
Co-Founder of Bold Blue Campaigns
Award-Winning Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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Ezra Klein and Nate Silver are two of the smartest politicos in the business, and despite some big miscalculations in the past, they don’t get much wrong. So, it’s rare when they both get the same thing wrong from different perspectives. Nate sees low amounts of coverage, leading to low poll numbers, while Ezra is seeing low poll numbers that don’t add up with all the coverage he perceives Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg to be receiving.

What neither recognizes is some brilliant media strategy being flawlessly executed by Lis Smith and Team Pete. Let’s break it down.

Early Primary Strategy

It’s April 2019, about a year and seven months away from election day. We haven’t seen a single debate, a single TV or radio campaign ad, and Super Tuesday is 11 months away. There’s nothing to win, yet. According to a Bold Blue Campaigns poll taken in February, roughly 48 percent of Democrats are undecided on who they will vote for in the primaries. (Full disclosure, I’m the chief media strategist for Bold Blue Campaigns).

So, today’s polls are about one thing and one thing only — raising money. Conventional wisdom in primary politics is that the candidates who do well in the early polls raise the early money. But Pete is confounding those expectations, raising $7 million in March against single-digit percentages in the polls, primarily from low dollar donors. So, who is giving Pete all this money? The answer is in the ratings.

Pete’s Media Coverage

Pete is doing more traditional talk shows, like The Tonight Show and The View, and is being covered less on cable news outlets. The entertainment-oriented talk shows get much higher ratings, which means more eyeballs. So, in terms of network minutes of coverage, all the other candidates are being covered far more than Pete by traditional news outlets, but Pete’s on talk shows where most political candidates can’t even get in the door. The difference in ratings between those two sectors is palpable.

For instance, Bill Maher’s Real Time on HBO averages a 7.5 rating, equating to about 8.9 million viewers. CNN’s average daypart viewership is less than 1 million viewers. Pete would need to be on CNN 9 times in order to get viewer numbers in the range of one spot on Real Time — and even if he did get that heavy rotation, he’d likely just be reaching the same viewers 9 times.

Further, in 2018, ABC’s The View finished the 2017-18 TV season with an average of 2.9 million viewers, making it the show’s most-watched year since Barbara Walters said goodbye four years ago. Pete’s been there twice. He’s also been on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show twice, and that show finished 2018 with an average viewership of 3.67 million nightly viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter, through December 15. That tops The Tonight Show‘s 2.46 million (where Pete has also guested), giving The Late Show a lead of 1.21 million. That marks an increase over the lead of 980,000 viewers that Colbert held at the same time last year.

Now, let’s look at how cable news stacks up. CNN was one of basic cable’s 10-most-watched networks for 2018, coming in at No. 7. with an average of 706,000 viewers across the 24-hour day (6 a.m. – 6 a.m.), per live-plus-same-day data from Nielsen.

On the downside, that 706,000 viewers figure is -9 percent from what the network drew in the 24-hour daypart in 2017 (779,000). Here’s the rundown for 2018 ratings:

Prime time:

CNN: 988,000 total viewers (-6 percent); 323,000 A25-54 (-12 percent)

MSNBC: 1,802,000 total viewers (+10 percent); 352,000 A25-54 (-5 percent)

Fox News: 2,434,000 total viewers (+1 percent) ;  463,000 A25-54 (-5 percent)

Total Day:

CNN: 706,000 total viewers (-9 percent); 214,000 A25-54 (-16 percent)

MSNBC: 994,000 total viewers (+12 percent);  197,000 A25-54 (-3 percent)

Fox News: 1,425,000 total viewers (-5 percent);  282,000 A25-54 (-12 percent)

Social Media Impact

But it’s not just ratings — it’s about the Internet and social media. When Jimmy Fallon posts a video interview, he has more than 50 million Twitter followers who get it on their feeds. Stephen Colbert has more than 18 million Twitter followers. By comparison, Chris Cuomo at CNN has fewer than 2 million followers. As a consequence, Pete registered a 35 percent spike in his Google searches as of April 1, outpaced only by Joe Biden, whose Google searches increased as a result of Lucy Flores’ initial allegation of Biden kissing her inappropriately. From The Hill:

Breaking down the search interest, Biden saw a 100 percent increase in the past week, while Buttigieg saw a spike of 35 percent and Bernie Sanders saw an increase of 18 percent.

Biden is widely expected to announce a 2020 presidential run, joining a field of more than a dozen Democratic candidates.

Several candidates saw interest spike concurrent with their campaign announcements, including Kamala Harris, who saw her peak around Jan. 21, when she made her announcement, and Sanders, who saw a similar peak when he announced on Feb. 19.

So, by Nate’s measure, the minutes of airtime don’t add up for Pete, but the number of people he’s reaching per minute of airtime — and on social media — would make most campaign managers drool uncontrollably. What is it that your boss always tells you to do that makes you want to feed his head into the fax machine? Work smarter, not harder. Well, Pete’s doing both, and he’s making it look effortless.

Why don’t the polls match the ratings?

Entertainment broadcast venues and broadcast news venues capture different viewerships in terms of demographics and voting records. In fact, the people who watch cable news tend to be likely voters, the people most pollsters call, because they pull names and numbers from the rolls of registered Democrats.

People who watch entertainment talk shows are a cross-section of a variety of demographics in America, where barely 40 percent could be considered likely voters. That means the majority of the people watching those talk shows, at least 60 percent of them, aren’t getting phone calls from pollsters. Why? Because they are either unregistered, or they simply haven’t voted in a while, so their names never show up on a pollster’s call list.

And that’s the answer to all the questions that neither Ezra nor Nate can seem to isolate within the confines of their tweets. Unlikely voters, new voters, people who can’t stand politics and haven’t participated recently all seem to love Pete. If he’s only polling at 3 percent, then we know those people aren’t enough to get him the money he raised last month. So, it must have come from the unlikely voters not represented in the polls — and they are the ones who first met Pete because of Jimmy or Stephen or Whoopi.

And as long as he continues to deliver them ratings, they’ll keep booking him, leaving candidates like Sanders, Warren, Biden, and Cory Booker on the outside looking in, unless they can pull some strings and get into the studio audience.

(Tony Panaccio is the co-founder and Chief Media Strategist for Bold Blue Campaigns, a political services company that specializes in state and local campaigns, and one of the country’s leading sources for political polling.)

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