The traditional campaign town hall format is sensible enough: A politician appears before an audience in a particular community to espouse his or her views on a variety of issues and answer questions from the audience members about their concerns. The format offers distinct advantages for both campaigner and citizen: Whereas staged debates encourage politicians to engage with one another, town halls encourage them to interact with the people whom they presume to represent.
Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—the first states to hold their primaries—will host countless traditional town halls throughout the presidential primary season. The major cable news networks upend the format by hosting modern, televised “town hall” forums that displace most local context to arouse a national audience. CNN doesn’t host a “town hall” in Washington, D.C. (the actual town); CNN hosts a “town hall” on cable news. On Sunday, Fox News hosted a televised town hall with New York senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand in Dubuque, Iowa. On Monday, MSNBC will host South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for a televised town hall at Fresno State. It’s town hall season.
The modern “town hall” proliferates in this century thanks to the format’s mastermind, the late Roger Ailes, formerly the chairman and CEO of Fox News. As Richard Nixon’s chief TV strategist during the 1968 presidential election, Ailes had Nixon address several town halls—“The Nixon Answer,” the series was called—for network TV broadcasts in the weeks before the general election. Of course, Nixon had a tricky history with televised presidential debates—he infamously paled in comparison to John F. Kennedy in their debates during the 1960 presidential election, which Nixon lost. The televised town hall format, devised by Ailes, offered Nixon an opportunity to broadcast his message on his own terms, and in November 1968, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey. In the half-century since Nixon (and Ailes) won the presidency, the televised town hall has become a distinctive feature of campaign season. We’re more than a year away from the 2020 election, and there have already been a couple dozen televised town halls before there’s been a single presidential debate.
The town hall format need not necessarily work to the politician’s advantage; the audience might prove more antagonistic than any potential rival on stage. In Barack Obama’s first presidential term, Democratic members of Congress faced notoriously hostile crowds when they hosted Obamacare town halls in their home districts. In February 2018, a week after a gunman killed 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, CNN hosted a massive “town hall” forum about gun rights. Florida Senator Marco Rubio attended as one of few politicians willing to take center stage, and so the survivors of a school shooting interrogated their pro-gun senator, with excruciating candor and devastating rebuttals, for 90 minutes on live television. The Parkland town hall was, arguably, CNN’s only positive contribution to civil society in 38 years of the cable news network’s existence.
The cable news “town hall” format hasn’t proved as valuable in presidential elections. The 2020 presidential election hosts more than 20 major Democratic candidates. Beginning in June, NBC and CNN will host the first of 12 presidential debates for the Democratic primary. (The Democratic National Committee has prohibited Fox News from hosting any of the scheduled Democratic debates.) Since January, CNN has hosted 21 town halls, with a few more scheduled for the latest Democratic entrants, including Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, and California Representative Eric Swalwell. Mercifully, Fox News has hosted only a few town halls featuring plausible candidates, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Buttigieg and, most recently, Gillibrand. The Fox News town halls, in particular, have polarized Democrats: Beto O’Rourke has been practically begging Fox News for a booking while Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Senator Kamala Harris have declined to attend any forums hosted by Fox News, which Warren described as a “hate-for-profit” racket. As for Sanders, about 1.4 million viewers watched Sanders’s town hall on CNN in February and more than 2.5 million watched his town hall on Fox News two months later. Sanders acquitted himself well enough in both forums to flatter the networks and their format. Still, the CNN town hall for Sanders underscored the perils of entrusting democratic exercises to cable news networks. CNN packed the audience with state Democratic party leaders from Maryland and political staffers from Washington without disclosing their affiliations to viewers.
Warren worries about conferring undue legitimacy to Fox News, in particular. None of these candidates seem to worry about conferring undue legitimacy to cable news networks, in general. There are dozens of presidential town halls hosted by the major cable news networks, and they’ve gotten Fox News viewers to watch the Democratic candidates in their own, unedited words. Ideally, the TV town hall phase of the 2020 presidential election will expand the electorate’s knowledge about an impossibly large field of candidates. Realistically, the town hall rush has served to further entrench the cable news networks as the gatekeepers they never deserved to become in the first place. Three months ago, O’Rourke commanded entire news cycles by sheer force of his personality and his blogging. Now, O’Rourke awaits a call back for a chance to appear on Fox News.