Preet Bharara surprised his own mother during last week’s interview with presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
She texted him after his podcast was released, not about Bharara and Yang’s debate over the policy of universal basic income, but about the pair’s discussion of bigotry and bullying growing up. Bharara had revealed on “Stay Tuned” that he faced racial taunts during a school trip to a planetarium.
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“I hadn’t intended to go where I went,” Bharara said in an interview.
That willingness to veer away from the horserace and the drama that drives TV news into more personal territory is precisely why the podcast Bharara’s been taping for a year and a half — after President Donald Trump ousted him as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in March 2017 — has become part of an unlikely group of media outlets landing interviews with 2020 Democratic candidates.
Podcasts, late-night programs and web shows are increasingly serving as off-ramps from the daily news churn, offering candidates opportunities for more freewheeling conversations and showing off their personalities or pop culture bonafides to a variety of audiences. And in a packed Democratic field, candidates are seizing every opportunity to reach a fragmented voting public that doesn’t always watch the evening news.
“I got time to talk to Pete Buttigieg about political philosophy,” said Bharara, referring to the South Bend, Indiana mayor. “We talked about Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. How often do you hear a conversation about that? That happens on a podcast like mine. It doesn’t happen on MSNBC. It allows candidates to show another and deeper side.”
Democratic presidential candidates aren’t about to turn down invites from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or the “Morning Joe” crew, with the exception of Joe Biden, who has been eschewing most media interviews. They’ll surely keep hitting town hall stages on CNN and Fox News and must-stops like ABC’s “The View” and CBS’s “Late Night with Stephen Colbert.” And everyone wants to make this month’s debate on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.
But in addition, Sen. Cory Booker shot hoops in Newark with Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, the former Viceland hosts who launched Showtime’s “Desus & Mero” in February. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told the late-night hosts in March why she’s running for president while cooking omelets in her Troy, New York home. Buttigieg will appear on Thursday night’s show.
“We want to talk to every single motherfucking one of them,” co-host Mero said of the 2020 field in April before rolling the Booker interview.
On Friday night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will take the stage at “Political Party Live!”, a millennial-geared podcast that’s already hosted Yang, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. Booker will join the show Saturday from Gene’s Bar in Iowa City.
Candidates have also talked to former Obama strategist David Axelrod and Vox’s Ezra Klein, and at least a dozen 2020 hopefuls have flocked to “Pod Save America,” which, though only launched in early 2017, has become a mainstay in Democratic politics.
“Smart campaigns are looking for forums that allow their candidates to connect with engaged audiences, break out of the 30-second soundbite culture of cable, and talk about more than Trump’s latest tweet,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior Obama adviser and co-host of “Pod Save America.”
“The advantage of many of these platforms is that they are evergreen and can be consumed on demand hours, days and weeks after the interview,” Pfeiffer said. “The more traditional platforms are ephemeral.”
Candidates have experimented with non-traditional or niche platforms in recent cycles. Hillary Clinton went on Buzzfeed’s “Another Round” podcast in 2016, where the hosts asked her why they never saw her sweating; “I’m really not even a human being,” Clinton responded. “I was constructed in a garage in Palo Alto.”
Peter Hamby, who began hosting Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” show during the 2016 election, noted that “new formats and new shows have been evolving and mutating since the birth of the smartphone” more than a decade ago.
“But candidates and campaigns are being less smug about new platforms and new shows,” he said. “They’re more willing to step into the breach because they realize you have to be on all screens at all times of the day.”
“A lot of people just consume an entirely different set of media than a lot of the people in Washington and New York who are making political news,” said Hamby, a former CNN reporter.
It’s also been a long time since the Democratic field had so many candidates, all of whom want a lighthearted, viral moment that makes them memorable to voters.
Still, there are risks for candidates when stepping away from more conventional political shows.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren discussed issues like taxing corporations and reparations for slavery over more than 45 minutes last Friday on Power 105.1’s “The Breakfast Club,” the nationally syndicated hip-hop morning show that’s become a destination for 2020 contenders.
But co-host Charlamagne tha God also challenged Warren’s past identification as Native American, an issue that’s largely faded from mainstream political coverage. “You’re kind of like the original Rachel Dolezal,” he said, referring to a white woman who identified as black.
On Friday’s “Vice News Tonight,” Charlemagne said he’s glad candidates are visiting “The Breakfast Club,” though he was blunt about their political calculations. “They’re only coming here because of the large listening audience,” he said, “and it’s a large listening audience of black and brown people.”
Buttigieg, who appeared on “The Breakfast Club” in March, has embraced a wide spectrum of media venues, from Hugh Hewitt’s conservative radio show — a must-stop during the 2016 Republican primary — to TMZ Live, where the candidate talked policy, pop culture and busted out a guitar. More recently, Buttigieg made headlines after stopping by a TMZ camera to defend NFL kneeling protests and point out Trump’s lack of military experience.
“It’s ultimately the candidate who determines the success of these things. There’s no magic recipe,” said Lis Smith, a Buttigieg communications adviser who has spearheaded an ambitious media strategy for a Midwestern mayor who had little national name recognition before getting in the race.
Smith recalled driving with Buttigieg in March as the candidate noticed a flurry of mentions on Twitter after his interview with Bharara, which took place before the candidate broke out on national television during a CNN town hall.
“Preet asked questions that aren’t on cable news,” she said, allowing for a conversation “that is 20 levels deeper” than most TV news shows. (Bharara said the Buttigieg interview was one of his best performing podcasts to date).
Iowa politician Stacey Walker and millennial business owners Veronica Tessler and Simeon Talley launched “Political Party Live!” in 2016 to engage young progressive Democrats and promote diverse voices in state politics. And like any good party, the hosts made sure there was beer, pizza, and music to go along with the political talk.
The appearance by Harris in February helped open the floodgates this cycle in terms of candidates coming on the show.
“This is the first time we’ve ever been a force in the presidential selection process in Iowa,” said Walker, who said the team is talking to several campaigns beyond the six candidates who have appeared or agreed to do so.
“Our hope is to be a resource to Iowans,” he said. “Iowans really do take their role being the first-in-the-nation caucuses state seriously. I think the candidates know that.”
Bharara said he and his team are talking this week about which candidate to invite next. He stressed that listeners want a “thoughtful discussion” — and said he’s not bound by the rigid criteria to get on the TV debate stage.
“For our podcast,” he said, “we don’t have some DNC-inspired formula of polling and donors that will determine when they do or don’t get airtime.”