Campaigns

In crowded field, 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls turn to podcasts

Medium growing in popularity puts candidates ‘between your ears’

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, records an episode of the “Cape Up” podcast with host Jonathan Capehart. (Courtesy Pete for America)

As he strove to boost recognition of his hard-to-pronounce name in the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, Pete Buttigieg appeared on at least 30 different podcasts.

And more are planned for the future.

“One thing that’s great about podcasts is that it allows for more in-depth conversation,” Buttigieg campaign adviser Lis Smith told CQ Roll Call.

The medium, which is growing in popularity, allows candidates to talk about their visions and policies without having to conform to TV’s short sound bites, Smith said. And for listeners, choosing to play a host’s podcast is akin to “letting a person into your home.”

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“You feel like you’re friends with these guys, you feel like you know them. You trust their judgment, you adopt their lingo. … I don’t remember ever feeling that way about a TV host or a radio host,” said Smith, a self-described podcast fan who has helped Buttigieg craft his media strategy.

A search on Google for the 21 major Democrats in the race so far found nearly all have appeared on a podcast either before their announcement or since. 

Podcasting also gives candidates the power to self-select a passionate audience, said Tom Webster, vice president of Edison Research, which tracks podcast statistics.

“A hundred thousand people might read a position paper or an article by a candidate. And maybe 5,000 will listen to a podcast. But those 5,000 are the ones that are really engaged … because they’re willing to commit, not just skim an article, but listen to this man or woman for 30 minutes or an hour,” Webster said.

Younger audiences

In 2016, when Republicans were the ones trying separate top-tier candidates from the rest of the field, conversations with presidential hopefuls happened on cable news shows, in quick interviews that rarely allowed candidates to develop a theme.

And at that time, only 36 percent of Americans had ever listened to a podcast, according to an Edison Research report.

In 2019, that percentage had grown to 51 percent, with an estimated 144 million Americans saying they had listened to a podcast in their lifetime. Forty percent of Americans ages 25-54 reported listening to a podcast in the last month, and the gender disparity in listenership has been steadily closing.

In contrast, only 17 percent of those 55 and older, a segment of the electorate that’s more likely to vote Republican, had listened to a podcast in the past month. 

Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has appeared on shows such as “The Breakfast Club,” a hip-hop and culture podcast; “Pod Save America,” a progressive political podcast hosted by former Obama staffers; and “The West Wing Weekly,” which is devoted to dissecting the popular former NBC drama “The West Wing.”

Many of the shows received positive receptions from donors and supporters, said Smith, a former deputy campaign manager for Democrat Martin O’Malley's 2016 presidential campaign.

‘Where the voters are’

David Axelrod, the former chief strategist for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, hosts a podcast called “The Axe Files.” Recent guests have included 2020 hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke. And nearly a dozen other candidates, including Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, were on the show before officially announcing their candidacies.

“Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because ‘that’s where the money is.’  Candidates do podcasts because that’s where the voters are. Podcasts are exploding as a medium, and with well-defined and, in some cases, large audiences. It’s a natural for candidates,” Axelrod said in an email.

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and lesser known presidential candidate, experienced a surge in momentum that can be linked to his debut on “The Joe Rogan Experience.” One of the most popular podcasts on the internet, the show features the comedian discussing topics ranging from mixed martial arts to philosophy. Yang’s campaign manager told The Daily Beast the interview was a turning point for the campaign.

The Rogan appearance, which reached millions of listeners, allowed Yang to describe his universal basic income policy proposal for nearly two hours. The latest RealClearPolitics average of Democratic primary polls puts Yang at just 1.4 percent, but he’s met the Democratic National Committee’s threshold to qualify for debates by securing more than 65,000 unique donors.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii also spoke on “The Joe Rogan Experience” about her opposition to “regime change wars” — a top foreign policy theme for her campaign — months before she entered the presidential race. That interview amassed nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube, though Gabbard’s polling average has been less than 1 percent.

Candidates bring more than just policy talk into the podcast studio. The medium allows for acutely personal conversation, which helps foster connections with listeners.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an early front-runner in national polls, has his own weekly campaign podcast titled “Hear the Bern.” The show, hosted by his national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, features chats about Sanders’ personal life and central campaign policies.

In the inaugural episode, Sanders covered topics such as his religion, the album he recorded in the ’80s, growing up poor, and his activism during the civil rights movement.

Buttigieg spoke on “The Breakfast Club” about the dichotomy of appreciating rap music produced by artists who express homophobia in lyrics, before describing his relationship with his husband, Chasten, and reminiscing about experiences he had as a freshman in college.

“The best podcasts address you and don’t address an audience, or at least that’s how they feel. There’s an intimacy to the experience because it’s happening literally between your ears,” said Webster, of Edison Research. 

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