As you know by now, the 2016 campaign has been a ratings blockbuster for TV news. There have been 20 sanctioned debates, numerous town halls and too-many-to-count one-on-one interviews with the candidates across the dial. With five candidates still vying for their party’s nomination, don’t expect it to let up anytime soon.
Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren has hosted two town halls: The first, with John Kasich in Illinois in early March, and the second yesterday with Donald Trump in Wisconsin.
The hour-long event at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, came two days before voters go to the polls. The hastily-arranged town hall meant that word did not get out until Friday. The last few rows of the 525-seat theater sat empty, with an additional 46 people seated behind Trump and Van Susteren.
If you’ve wondered what it’s like inside one of these town halls, you’re in luck. We covered it. Here’s the tick tock:
12:30 Arrive at the UWM campus north of Downtown Milwaukee.
12:35 Greeted by Van Susteren’s assistant Emily. As we head toward an entrance we are met first by Milwaukee Police at one barricade, and told the entrance is on the other side.
12:38 As we make our way to the other entrance, the president of the UWM College Republicans approaches and mentions he’ll be asking a question at the town hall (he doesn’t) and is told to line up with other attendees.
12:40 UWM Campus Police allow us to enter through the barricade and after winding our way through a parking garage and loading dock, we duck under the half-open garage door.
12:41 We are met by two Secret Service officers who give us both a wand check.
12:52 Through the bowls of the theater, backstage, on to the set and up the steps to the main lobby I go, and wait.
1:05 Attendees who have been waiting outside come in through magnetometers and register. It’s a young crowd.
1:09 I chat with a UWM junior who is working this event, as she does other events at the Mainstage Theatre. She’s studying drama.
1:13 Van Susteren arrives in the lobby area, greeting guests and even friends from her childhood in Appleton, about 100 miles north of Milwaukee. (Later, she tells us she wanted to hold the town hall at her high school auditorium, but the logistics didn’t work.)
1:18 We interview Van Susteren on stage.
1:36 We meet Griff Jenkins, a correspondent for On the Record. He has a cough due to a cold. We fist bump. His No. 1 job today: Reminding attendees no photos or videos during the taping, lest their smartphone be confiscated. (No ones is.) He tells us how he and the tight-knit On the Record team, led by Greta, went through the submitted questions Saturday night. He expects 11 to 12 will be asked. He’s particularly proud that one about the heroin epidemic gripping some communities has made the cut. Jenkins introduces us to a man called Hollywood, who is in charge of the cameras for the production. Ninety minutes before the taping, Hollywood is blocking shots, as mics are checked and lighting is tweaked. I’m getting in the way of them doing their jobs.
1:45 Secret Service agent informs me that if I’m finished with my news gathering, I can’t be on the stage. Exit stage.
1:48 I look for a seat. Fourth row, center. As it turns out, those asking questions of Trump are seated behind me in the fifth and sixth rows.
2:00 The first round of attendees, those seated behind Trump and Van Susteren, are loaded in. After being seated, some are moved around. (Later, a questioner asks Jenkins how they were selected to sit there. He says he’ll find out. We don’t get an answer.)
2:20 Chatting with those around me. I meet a young woman named Amy, who shares with me (unsolicited) the question she’ll be asking. As it turns out, she’s called on first. She asks about Trump’s tax plan. The woman seated next to me calls herself an independent, who goes with the person not the party. She supported Howard Dean in 2004 (even after the scream, she says.) She voted for John McCain in 2008, Barack Obama in 2012 and is supporting Trump this time.
2:40 We are 20 minutes from the taping. Jenkins warms up the crowd and reminds them of the no pictures or videos rule. He asks the crowd if they have any questions. A group of young men in the last row reveal they are Trump supporters from the University of Illinois-Chicago and they’ve come two hours to attend the town hall. Another attendee says he’s “leaning Kasich” but is curious to know if Trump can win him over. Another wants to know if Trump was serious about what he said at AIPAC.
2:48 Van Susteren walks out… mentions Trump is not yet in the building.
2:53 Those asking the questions as well as the attendees on stage are asked to remove blue stickers given to them at registration, so they don’t show up on TV.
2:58 A crowd member asks whether Trump sees the questions beforehand. “Absolutely not” says Jenkins, adding that this is a Fox News town hall, not a Trump event.
3:05 Trump is running behind, so the audience questions continue. A UWM student asks Van Susteren about what it takes to break into journalism. “Go to law school,” the Georgetown Law grad advises.
3:09 Trump walks in. Applause. He sits. Some banter about the Green Bay Packers. “I like the Packers,” he says.
3:10 The taping begins. There’s a show open and an introduction and more audience applause.
3:12 First question in the town hall is about Obamacare.
3:15 Second question is about tone. “Tone to me matters, being presidential matters,” said Trump.
3:18 But if he’s elected, that doesn’t mean he’ll stop tweeting. “It’s like owning my own newspaper,” says Trump about how he uses his social channels.
3:20 Amy, sitting behind us, is brought to the mic.
3:21 Amy asks her question about the unfairness of the current federal tax system.
3:30 First commercial break. The crowd engages: “Donald, please win,” yells one. “Thank you,” the candidate mouths back.
3:33 Back from first break.
3:35 A question from a doctoral student, who also teaches undergrads, asks about college affordability. Trump’s “there’s no such thing as free education” line gets a big applause.
3:38 Second commercial break. Trump recognizes Melissa Young, Miss Wisconsin 2005, who is suffering from an incurable disease. She is with her son, Jack, who is holding a sign “Mr. Trump is my Super Hero.”
3:40 And we’re back…
3:45 Question from the crowd about the threat of ISIS and the murder of journalist James Foley “a Marquette grad.” “It’s a disgrace that a thing like that is allowed to happen,” says Trump, who has given to the Foley Foundation.
3:47 Another commercial break, during which someone shouts, “Mr. Trump what kind of shampoo do you use?” “I better not say. I’m not sure if it works,” a self-deprecating Trump says. Someone else asks who Trump thinks will win the Masters.
3:51 Back from break and a town hall question from someone who is leaning Kasich. “A mistake,” Trump says.
3:52 The first mention today of the Wall.
3:53 Another break.
3:56 The question about the heroin epidemic is asked.
3:58 The final commercial break. An audience member shouts, “Mr. Trump are you going to attend your grandson’s bris?” following the birth of Ivanka Trump‘s third child Theodore James Kushner. Without flinching, Trump says, “It’s happening today,” but that he chose to come to Wisconsin and take part in Greta’s town hall.
4:01 The town hall taping ends.
4:02 Van Susteren gathers her high school friends to take pictures on stage.
4:03 I plan to exit but am welcomed down to the stage and, after I pass muster with Secret Service, who have surrounded the candidate, I ask Trump what he thought of the town hall. It was really good, he says. Substantive, I add. I also ask if he’ll take part in another debate. I get a chuckle, but no answer.
4:04 Trump welcomes Melissa Young and her son on stage. They pose for pictures. Now the stage is even more crowded. From the wings Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski welcomes up a Trump fan and, with the young man’s phone, snaps a picture of the two, while I take a picture of Lewandowski. It doesn’t get any more meta than that.
4:13 I tweet that picture.
— Chris Ariens (@ChrisAriens) April 3, 2016
4:14 Out the door, I make my way around the barricades, without coming upon any of the 100 protestors who were kept on the other side of the theater building, near the Golda Meir Library.