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Home » How do you cover a candidate everyone knows—and no one remembers? 

How do you cover a candidate everyone knows—and no one remembers? 

Celinda Lake, one of President Biden’s top pollsters on his 2020 campaign, was recently conducting a focus group with swing voters for another client when a response stopped her cold.

Lake had asked how the voters felt about former president Donald Trump’s pending criminal court cases related to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

“They go, ‘What court case around January 6?’” she recalled. “These were swing voters, and about half of them weren’t sure what we were talking about. And I said, ‘Well, you know, the insurrection and that he was the one that provoked it.’ They go, ‘Oh, yeah. I kind of forgot about that.’”

For journalists and the types of highly engaged voters who watch the news every night, Trump’s lock on renomination has been near-certain for at least six months, and his various transgressions and incendiary comments are well known. But it’s easy for political obsessives to lose sight of how little attention many normal people pay to day-to-day politics.

Even now, as Trump’s Super Tuesday victories this week mark the all but official start of the 2024 presidential general election, a significant portion of voters remain largely disengaged—especially those swing voters whose choices will likely decide the election.

“People really haven’t focused yet on the real idea that Trump is going to be the nominee and could be the president,” Lake said. “And they also are really in kind of a collective amnesia about what the Trump term was like.”

The polls back this up. A recent survey of voters who did not support Trump in 2020—conducted in three key swing states by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin and shared with the New Republic—found that less than a third of them had heard “a lot” about Trump’s most recent authoritarian statements, like his vow to be “dictator for one day,” and his description of his political opponents as “vermin.”

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The question is whether voters just don’t really care—or if they’ll turn against him once they are reminded of Trump’s record in office and plans for a second term.

The New York Times’ Jennifer Medina and Reid Epstein tackled this question earlier this week with a piece aptly headlined “Do Americans Have a ‘Collective Amnesia’ About Donald Trump?” 

It’s very much worth a read. They write: “More than three years of distance from the daily onslaught has faded, changed—and in some cases, warped—Americans’ memories of events that at the time felt searing. Polling suggests voters’ views on Mr. Trump’s policies and his presidency have improved in the rearview mirror. In interviews, voters often have a hazy recall of one of the most tumultuous periods in modern politics.”

Part of the problem is that many voters, especially the crucial bloc of younger ones, simply don’t remember Trump that well. Those turning eighteen and eligible to vote for the first time this fall were just ten years old and in grade school when Trump won the presidency, in 2016; the January 6 Capitol riots happened back when most of them were just starting high school. The rest of us don’t have memories that are as sharp and reliable as we’d like to think—it’s not just Joe Biden and Donald Trump who regularly get names wrong or forget in what year things occurred.

And the past eight years have been particularly intense. I barely remembered a few of Trump’s quotes tested in the Garin poll, and I cover this for a living. We’ve all just grown numb, overwhelmed by the chaos—something that’s often reflected in our coverage and in how voters respond. The first time Trump ventures into new rhetorical territory, it’s still news. The second or third time he says something that once would have been far outside the pale of political rhetoric, it doesn’t even rate a mention.

Case in point: When Trump launched his 2016 campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers,” it dominated the news and became one of the most-remembered lines of the campaign. His recent claim that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” generated headlines but didn’t dominate coverage. On Thursday, he declared in his State of the Union “prebuttal” that Biden is “keeping the hordes of illegal migrants and illegal aliens pouring into the country,” and claimed that “many come from mental institutions, many come from prisons, they’re terrorists.” Few major news organizations wrote stories focusing on the comments.

Even if they had, it’s also important to remember how few people are reading stories like these. Nearly 159 million Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election—the highest rate of eligible voters in more than a century. Just a tiny fraction of those voters are actually consuming mainstream media on a regular basis: Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN combined for an average of 3.65 million total weekly viewers in 2023. The New York Times, the largest-circulation newspaper in the country, has about 10.3 million total paid subscribers.

And the breathless reporting of “Trump said x crazy thing” doesn’t generate the attention it used to. I can personally attest to this, having seen traffic on these stories drop steadily ever since he first ran for office.

As GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted Thursday morning, “The moral panic about Trump is palpably a lot less than it was 8 years ago.”

All this doesn’t mean that people don’t have strong opinions about the two candidates, or who they’ll vote for. Trump and Biden are two of the best-known and most polarizing figures in modern American history. 

Potential voters who don’t read the news won’t be able to escape what could be a combined $1 billion in campaign spending in the swing states. It’s been a lot easier to avoid Trump since he left the White House and Twitter. That won’t be so true in the heat of a presidential general election.

Journalists have to keep in mind that voters in swing states may not be thinking of all the details now, but they’re likely to be much more attuned by the time they vote. 

Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.

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