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April 23, 2019, 11:29 a.m.

Pete Buttigieg is on every podcast, and 2020’s retail politics is increasingly happening in earbuds

The podcast audience is proving to be catnip for Democratic politicians, especially those hoping to keep it 1600 come January 2021.

“Podcasts are really hot right now, and I think underappreciated,” said Lis Smith, communications adviser to the buzzy Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, on CNN’s Reliable Sources last month.

Smith was answering host Brian Stelter’s question on undervalued media avenues for political candidates these days, and it was an observation from experience. These days, you can find Buttigieg up and down the Apple Podcasts charts, mostly in the corners of podcast-land that you’d pretty much expect — the New Yorker Radio Hour, Stay Tuned with Preet Bharara, The Intercept’s Deconstructed, Pod Save America, and so on — but also in some quirkier venues, like The West Wing Weekly. Buttigieg’s podcast push is so discernible that it kicked off a recent piece by Vox’s Matt Yglesias that attempted to place the candidate’s “go everywhere” media strategy within the context of 2019. (Buttigieg has also appeared on two Vox podcasts, The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show.)

This is probably the point where I should mention Buttigieg isn’t the only Democratic 2020 hopeful you can hear on a podcast. Outsider candidate Andrew Yang, largely a candidate of the Internet to begin with, made an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience back in February. (I doubt he’ll be the last.) Bernie Sanders recently rolled out an official campaign podcast for the upcoming race. (It isn’t his first podcast in general, though.) And of course, there’s the aforementioned Pod Save America, nowadays a customary stop on the Democratic Party media circuit, which has also featured appearances by other 2020 contenders like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, and…*checks notes* Jay Inslee?

However, the Buttigieg Podcast Blitz stands out for the fact that…well, it’s a blitz. As Yglesias puts it, “if you’re into politics, then everywhere you look, you see Pete Buttigieg,” and this seems especially true if you’re into politics-flavored podcasts.

There’s a reading of this move that suggests a candidate who has internalized the realities of a fragmented media system, a structure roughly embodied by podcasting itself. Everybody has their own nodes in the universe, and so you should make the effort to go be where they are wherever they are. As Smith went on to say on that Reliable Sources spot, “These [podcasts] all have very unique, different audiences…I think it speaks to his range.” But maybe this isn’t even about media fragmentation at all. Maybe this is just what a digital version of retail politics looks like in 2019. Or maybe it’s just a buzzy move that tickles the kinds of people who listen to podcasts in the first place: generally educated, generally well-off, generally liberal.

Still, the Buttigieg Blitz feels like the realization of something planted in the last presidential cycle. Back then — 2016, if you can recall, mere centuries ago — presidential elections and podcasts were still an unlikely mix. There were three major pegs to the overlap. First, the rise of an election podcast economy that may or may not have failed us. Second, the birth of The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, the proto-Pod Save America. And finally, the bracing novelty of then-candidate Hillary Clinton first making an appearance on Another Round, and then eventually launching an unexpectedly podcast-y campaign podcast of her own, With Her, courtesy of the folks at Pineapple Street. All these things were oddities of the moment, but their oddness was interesting, and interestingness has a certain (small) kind of power. Smith, in the same interview: “People give points for creativity.”

Today, the pairing of presidential elections and podcasts is much less novel. We’re due to be neck deep again in election podcasts by this time next year. Keepin It’ 1600 went on to become Pod Save America, which went on to center the left-wing talk-radio equivalent of the late 2010s. And now, as the Buttigieg Blitz begins to illustrate, there may well be a podcast media circuit open for other 2020 hopefuls to pursue.

It’s going to be an interesting year and a half. Let’s see if election shows, left-wing talk podcasts, and the podcast circuit become more mainstreamed as channels of political communication, or if it’ll remain an ongoing oddity.

In meantime, there’s always the old bloggin’ about Thrones move.

This piece is part of this week’s Hot Pod; see the whole issue here.

POSTED     April 23, 2019, 11:29 a.m.
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