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The nationalization of political news will accelerate

“In this election cycle, the old saying that ‘the real presidential campaign begins after Labor Day’ might refer to 2019, not 2020.”

In 2016, news about the leading presidential candidates, particularly Donald Trump, saturated the market. Hillary Clinton earned more than twice the newspaper stories in 2016 that Bill Clinton did in 1992 — and Donald Trump earned 55 percent more than she did. As the news environment nationalizes, politics is too: People care more about what is happening in the politics of Washington than in their own communities.

The nationalization of political news will speed up in 2019, powered by the presidential campaign. The Democratic candidates will command massive media attention in the early primary states, as will their likely eventual opponent, the most dominant earned-media figure in politics.

The decline of local news is a major factor in this trend towards nationalization. Local newspapers are publishing less about their representatives in Washington, leading to lower knowledge about local politicians. In areas where local newspapers close, polarized voting increases: Voters are less likely to split their tickets, voting for the same party up and down the ballot.

Presidential candidates benefit from a weakened local news environment. Trump rode that unprecedented wave of earned media to the Republican nomination, and arguably the presidency. In 2019, his would-be Democratic opponents will encounter local newspapers that are vulnerable and hungry for nationally relevant content. In the early states, where earned media can have the biggest impact, candidates can target their press releases to the Associated Press wire to earn more coverage. Smaller newspapers, which often lack the resources to cover the campaign themselves, are more vulnerable to resource-rich campaigns earning more (and more positive) coverage in the areas where they invest resources. Local newspapers will want to cover the primaries, and campaigns will make it easier for them.

The Democratic primaries will amplify the nationalization of political news, commanding massive amounts of media attention in local and national news alike. In this election cycle, the old saying that “the real presidential campaign begins after Labor Day” might refer to 2019, not 2020. Media attention — even more than the endorsements of party insiders — will be the most valuable currency, and there will be plenty to go around.

Joshua P. Darr is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.

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