Guess That Audience! Viewing Presidential Debates Through the Lens of PR


Democratic Presidential Primary Debate (Sept. 12, 2019)

Behind the scenes of every political campaign are teams of public relations (PR) professionals, working hard to make their candidate stand out among the rest. No candidate wants to seem too similar to any other. Every candidate wants to be viewed as the new, bold voice of their party. Therefore, political PR teams must captivate audiences and inspire support. They must analyze their candidate's history, persona and ideology and decide which audiences their candidate will most appeal to. Will they excite women voters? Enthrall the LGBTQ+ community? Appease moderates? Electrify the far-left or far-right? Whatever the answer is to these questions determines a candidate's central messaging and political rhetoric for the duration of their campaign. A candidate's logo, apparel, stump speeches, social media content, website design and interview responses will be carefully curated to effectively target specific voter demographics. This political PR strategy is no more evident than during presidential debates, when candidates are given a massive platform to tell America who they are and what they stand for. In this blog, I will discuss three candidates from the 2019 Democratic Presidential primary to reveal how the game is played.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand


As one of America's most anti-Trump Senators, Kirsten Gillibrand carries a fiery progressive torch with her wherever she goes. Before she dropped out of the presidential primary on August 28, the New York Senator relied heavily on targeting female voters. Her persona as an unapologetic champion of women's rights and gender equality was on full displayat the July 31 debate, where she scrutinized Joe Biden's record on women's issues. She asked Biden to defend an old 1981 quote that, without context, made then-Senator Biden appear to be against women in the workplace. Unfortunately for Gillibrand, Biden was prepared for the attack and reminded the audience of Gillibrand's praise for his record on women's issues in 2016. Regardless of the attack's effectiveness, one cannot deny that she was staying on message and trying to appeal to female voters. And if that wasn't enough brand consistency, Gillibrand ended her campaign in the same way she started it -- with a rallying cry to put "the civil rights of women front and center."

Mayor Pete Buttigieg


At the ripe old age of 37, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, is the youngest candidate in the Democratic primary field. His central messaging focuses on the need for generational change in politics and electing a president that represents the leaders of tomorrow, not yesterday. In the July 31 debate, the South Bend Mayor leveraged his youth to deliver a tear-jerking line: "I was part of the first generation that saw routine school shootings. We have now produced the second school-shooting generation. We dare not allow there to be a third.” In addition, Buttigieg's status as an openly gay man running for president allows him to authentically communicate with LGBTQ+ voters in a way that other candidates in the race cannot. During the September 12 debate, Buttigieg discussed the hardship he faced as a once-closeted homosexual and how he made the decision to go public with his identity. He said, "I wasn’t interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer." The Buttigieg PR team went on to use this statement to promote the campaign's Twitter and Instagram content.

Former Vice President Joe Biden


After three years of a highly controversial Trump presidency that has left Democrats and Progressives reeling with anger, Joe Biden has galloped onto the scene, promising the one thing liberal voters crave more than anything else: electability. The Biden campaign has repeatedly stressed their standing as the only campaign that commands a bold lead in head-to-head matchups against Trump. In debates, Biden has used his bipartisan appeal to win over moderates and centrist Democrats who desperately seek a return to Obama-era normalcy. Viewers of the July 31 debate saw Biden set himself apart from his opponents on the issue of illegal immigration. Contrary to Senator Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Biden asserted that illegal immigration "is a crime" and should be treated as such. He also endorsed expanding Obamacare with a nationwide public option plan instead of the progressive proposal of Medicare for all. In addition, his routine praise of Former President Barack Obama is used to captivate fatigued Democrats who reminisce on betters days from America's not-so-distant past. Overall, Biden's centrist rhetoric and middle-of-the-road policy positions are manifestations of the phrase "slow and steady wins the race." The challenge for his PR team will be convincing steadfast Progressives to vote for the former vice president, despite his less-than-trailblazing policy positions.

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