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Voters, News Orgs Treat Midterms Like Presidential Election

Like the World Cup and the presidential election, the midterm elections happen every four years. But with voter interest in the Nov. 6th midterms white hot, and the electorate feeling an enormous amount is at stake at the polls, reporters who cover the quadrennial Congressional contest say the 2018 midterms are unlike any they've witnessed in many, many years. A polarizing president has inserted himself in the middle of the midterms, several news veterans say, using these elections as a referendum on his performance.

Voter turnout Nov. 6th is expected to scrape the skies.

News viewership that day will too.

“This is much bigger than any mid-term I’ve covered,” said Marc Burstein, senior executive producer, ABC News Special Events. “It’s the most consequential one in a generation.”

The network news outfits are using all their platforms to get the latest polling information out. ABC goes live at 8 p.m. ET Nov. 6th, with George Stephanopoulos, chief anchor, leading coverage, and the likes of World News Tonight anchor David Muir, chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz and chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl pitching in. 

CBS announced Thursday it is moving up its start time from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m. Norah O'Donnell, Jeff Glor, Gayle King, John Dickerson and Bianna Golodryga lead the coverage. NBC also moved up its start time, with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd leading the coverage in New York at 8 p.m.

On the cable side, Fox News Channel starts at 6 p.m., with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum anchoring. Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow anchor MSNBC starting at 6 p.m. CNN has Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper hosting from Washington beginning at 5 p.m.

For Spanish speakers, Jose Diaz-Balart anchors for Telemundo, and Jorge Ramos and Ilia Calderon do so for Univision.

The networks are all in. “This is a Super Bowl. This is a presidential election,” is how Rashida Jones, senior VP of specials for NBC News and MSNBC, describes the coverage. “We are definitely flooding the zone coast to coast.”

Indeed, after the network news outfits were largely criticized for not having enough boots on the ground in the heartland leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and failing to see President Trump’s win as a veritable outcome, they are cranking up the manpower for the midterms. “We all learned a lesson,” said Jones. “We want to make sure we focus on what people tell us, not just what we think they are thinking.”

Trump on the Ticket

The president has made it clear that a vote for a Republican candidate is a vote for Trump, and has used the podium at recent news events to remind voters to turn up Nov. 6th. Many voters see a vote for a Democratic candidate as a vote against Trump. “The president himself is saying, I’m on the ticket, this is a referendum on me,” said CBS This Morning’s O’Donnell.

While presidents have always gone to bat for candidates they’re aligned with, political reporters say Trump’s tireless mid-term machinations are uncommon. “The president has put himself right in the middle,” said Carlos Chirinos, Univision senior editor, politics.

The stage for the exorbitant level of interest in the midterms was set when Trump won the presidency in 2016. Some see the Nov. 6th races as a tipping point for the nation, which sources note around half the country seems to think is headed in the wrong direction, and half feel it’s on a good track. “This year, everything is going to be measured based on what happened two years ago,” said Bill Hemmer, anchor of Fox News Channel’s America’s Newsroom.

Engaged and Energized

Trump’s surprise victory taught many in the electorate to never take their vote for granted again. “It woke people up,” said Mary Hager, executive producer of CBS' mid-term coverage. “It was a reminder that elections do matter.”

Most of the major news stories of late, including Brett Kavanaugh’s promotion to Supreme Court justice, Cesar Sayoc sending pipe bombs to Democratic leadership and the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, contribute to the political fervor enveloping much of the nation. “I think it’s all connected," said Jones.

It all makes for a nation where politics has leapfrogged several other categories in terms of stuff people in America want to talk about. “Politics have become almost a daily conversation,” said Jose Diaz-Balart, anchor of Telemundo Noticias and NBC Nightly News Saturday. “Dinnertime conversations have changed over the last couple years.”

The midterms have historically been an event of middling interest to the electorate, say several reporters. Typically, a third of the electorate hits the polls for them, according to Jim VandeHei, executive producer of new HBO investigative series Axios. “Mainly because of Trump, [among] both the Republicans and the Democrats, there is an enthusiasm in many ways feels like a presidential election,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you had turnout that is exponentially higher than in previous elections. People are just engaged."

To be sure, the energy leading up to some midterm elections past has been notable. The Democrats were mobilized in 2006, capturing the majority in the House and the Senate, and highly motivated Republicans won the House majority in 2010 while grabbing Senate seats too. "This one feels like passion on both sides," noted Sam Feist, CNN Washington bureau chief.

All In on All Platforms

Helping sate consumers' hunger for political information is technology that keeps them updated up to the second. ABC News will use augmented reality to depict the Capitol interior, filling up with red and blue seats. It also has its FiveThirtyEight forecasting platform offering perspective on the Senate, House and governor races. Fox News will debut its Voter Analysis Data, which combines online and telephone polling with voters at the polls information. Univision has PoliChat, a bot delivering real time information via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. NBC will have affiliates share updates from their markets on Facebook, and will unveil a two-minute program on Snapchat and Instagram. NBC will also be live on its new streaming network, Signal.

CBS' streaming platform, CBSN, actually turns four on Election Day. CBSN goes live 5 p.m. ET that day. “We’re able to drive viewers on two different platforms,” said Hager.

CNN will rely on Harry Enten, who left FiveThirtyEight earlier this year, for his forecasting acumen. "Harry will offer viewers more context about the data we have," said Feist. "He explains what's behind the numbers."

All the latest technological bells and whistles makes for an even more engaged news consumer. “We all have the news at our fingertips now,” said O’Donnell.

And so it is anything goes on November 6th, and all hands on deck to cover a massive story that looks to leave half the country happy, half enraged, and both sides eyeing the presidential election two years out. The news outfits have rehearsed for the midterm madness. They’ve hung the red, white and blue bunting. They are ready to go.

"The public interest in midterm elections can wax and wane," said CNN's Feist. "But this year, we're seeing extraordinary interest."