How PR decided who took part in the Democratic debates


On June 26 and 27, the first TV Democratic debates signalled the start of the 2020 US Presidential race. Over the course of two nights, 20 candidates attempted to make their case and ignite a boost in their polling numbers.

However, with 271 Democratic candidates filing to run, having gotten on the stage at all is an achievement in itself for the presidential hopefuls.
For the bigger names such as Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, it was a given that they would have a podium with their name on it. However, for the other candidates, they often had to use clever PR strategies in order to get invited. Given that the second round of debates are on July 30-31, we at MediaHQ want to investigate some of these lesser-known politicians, and to see how they used PR to make their campaigns stand out.

John Delaney

While many consider the presidential race to just be getting started, for John Delaney it has been underway for years. The former congressman announced that he was running in July 2017, and has used that fact to his advantage by generating loyal supporters during the long period when he was the only candidate in the race. He has particularly focused on Iowa (the first state to vote in the Democratic primaries), where he has visited every one of its 99 counties, a feat which he boasts about frequently on the campaign trail. Delaney’s PR tactics of getting some loyal voters early and in the most important state have managed to raise his polling numbers high enough to make the first debate.

Andrew Yang

There are two PR reasons why Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Yang made the debate: focusing on one issue (his plan to give all citizens $1,000 a month to combat job losses from automation) and his online presence. Routinely appearing on online shows and podcasts, and starting an online community called the Yang Gang, his unorthodox campaign managed to receive enough donations to get him a spot on stage.

Amy Klobuchar

After Trump won the 2016 Election, the Democratic Party’s political strategists knew that they would need to win back the Midwest. Amy Klobuchar is seeking to capitalise on that with a personality-driven campaign. Her campaign launch is an example of a successful PR moment, as a shock blizzard disrupted the event. Her team turned this to their advantage and continued the announcement, attempting to display her “Minnesota resilience”. She has become very popular in these battleground states and as a result, earned her own podium.

Jay Inslee

In a similar PR strategy to Yang, Washington governor Jay Inslee has made his campaign about one issue: climate change. By focusing heavily on this issue, he has managed to carve out a sizeable portion of the environmentalist electorate. He made news when notable climate change activist Bill Nye “The Science Guy” backed his candidacy. The fact that his entire campaign is centred around climate change makes it clear what his campaign is about, which is a PR masterstroke in a race where it is unclear what some candidates’ policy positions are.

Mike Gravel

Politics can often seem crazy and unpredictable. But if you told most people that a trio of teenagers from New York are running a campaign for an 88-year old former senator from Alaska, they still wouldn’t believe it. However, that is exactly what happened when high school students David Oks and Elijah Emery were given the keys to Mike Gravel’s official Twitter account in March 2019. The teenagers used this account to roast the other candidates. Surprisingly though, what started as a joke has become a genuine campaign based on anti-war principles. The #Gravelanche gained hundreds of thousands of followers online and while not having qualified for the first debate, they have now reached the donor threshold for the next round of debates. The moral of Mike Gravel’s story is that sometimes great PR stories happen almost completely by accident.
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