Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs will be the next governor of Arizona, barring a recount that says otherwise. And when the Democrat is sworn in, she’ll likely thank her handlers privately for their media strategy in getting her over the finish line after looking like the underdog going into Election Day against outspoken Republican Kari Lake.
Hobbs embraced the same strategy that served Joe Biden as a candidate and continues to serve him as president: almost entirely avoiding the media, shunning any interviewer who may ask a tough question and rejecting the opportunity to debate an opponent. Hobbs did all three, got some benign criticism for it and still won a razor-thin victory.
“It’s clear that Kari Lake is much more interested in creating a spectacle and having the spotlight than actually having a substantive discussion about the issues,” Hobbs recently told NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked why she would not debate Lake. The answer got little pushback from the moderator.
So, imagine that: Telling voters you want to have a substantive discussion about the issues while simultaneously running from the debate stage that would facilitate such a discussion. And doing so with a straight face. Hobbs topped Lake, a Trump-backed election denier, anyway.
Senator-elect John Fetterman (D) of Pennsylvania used a similar strategy: He avoided almost all interviews outside of those where it was virtually guaranteed he would be propped up instead of challenged.
Fetterman, who unfortunately suffered a massive stroke in May that has impacted his speech and auditory processing ability to this day, did eventually agree to debate his Republican challenger, Dr. Mehmet Oz, but only did so just days before the election after hundreds of thousands of votes had been cast by mail starting in mid-September. Importantly, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote early.
Fetterman, by all objective accounts, performed horribly on the debate stage. But it may not have mattered. By using the “basement strategy” for the entirety of his campaign outside of relatively short rally speeches where he took no questions from reporters afterward, the tactic of less-is-more and duck-and-hide from the press proved to be successful. Throw in the fact that Oz, who was a subpar Trump-backed candidate and seen as a rich carpetbagger with an authenticity problem, and you have your final result.
Fetterman, who looked to be behind as the last polls came in before Election Day, won by almost five points. He has done no national interviews since.
The same happened in the gubernatorial race in New York. Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul won the endorsement of the New York Times without sitting down for an interview with its editorial board. She also avoided anything resembling challenging interviews with the local and state-based press, instead relying on social media and going on MSNBC for interviews such as one that was titled: “Kathy Hochul on Lee Zeldin helping strategize ‘The Big Lie.’”
Hochul won by six points.
Journalist Jonathan Swan said it best in a tweet regarding his repeated efforts to land a one-on-one interview with President Biden:
“I say this as somebody who has tried repeatedly to get a one-on-one with Joe Biden. He won’t do it. And there’s no convening power on planet earth that could compel him to do an interview that his advisers deem to be unsafe. This is of course true of many politicians.”
And this has become common among politicians. Biden is protected and packaged like no president we’ve seen in the TV era. The president announces before the rare press conference he gives that he has been “given a list of reporters to call on” and oftentimes shares that he’ll “get in trouble” with his staff if he stays longer than he should.
Biden’s did few sit-down TV interviews in 2022. At one point, the president went 220 days without doing one between February and September, and this is an election year with the president’s approval mired in the low 40s.
No matter: Less Biden meant fewer gaffes, misstatements and clarification cleanups on aisles 5, 8 and 14. His handlers’ thinking must have been to avoid Biden being too visible (the opposite of the Trump approach) to avoid the election being a referendum on his policies and performance on inflation, crime and the border. Biden has held four solo press conferences this year. In contrast, Trump held 35 in his final year in office.
Result: Democrats defied the odds and held the Senate, avoiding a red wave in Congress. Republicans still took the lower chamber, but by a thin margin. Would that have been the case if Biden had campaigned in critical swing states such as Nevada and Arizona?
Would the result have been different if Trump had stayed out of the endorsement business, especially on the Senate side?
Media analyst Steve Krakauer told me recently that while social media has allowed candidates to “connect directly with voters while bypassing the gatekeepers in the media,” there’s another key element that plays into the strategy.
“If the corporate media were still respected and trusted by the public, there would be demands by the public that politicians undergo scrutiny from the press,” Krakauer, a former CNN producer, told me. “But because trust and relevance has eroded so spectacularly, particularly in recent years, the public no longer sees an incentive to have a politician sit for a challenging interview.”
“The politicians see that as an opening for them to avoid the press,” he added. “And the media has no one to blame but themselves.”
Tough, challenging interviews: More politicians are running from them even when running for office. And if the country continues to be as divided and polarized as the media that covers it, expect that trend to continue, perhaps permanently.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.