If you follow politics on social media, video clips of long-shot 2024 presidential candidates have likely been all over your feeds recently, sitting in studios or offices with podcast microphones pressed to their faces.
In recent months, Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Republican Vivek Ramaswamy have embarked on a podcast blitz, using their campaigns as calling cards for any show that will have them on—from obscure history, wellness or crypto podcasts to Elon Musk’s Twitter Spaces and Joe Rogan’s popular program. It’s an approach driven by necessity: television networks and media outlets tend to give long-shots little airtime or attention compared to the leading candidates. But as Kennedy and Ramaswamy have recognized, hundreds of podcasts and livestreams are happy to offer fringe contenders the opportunity to expound on their views for hours, usually without being challenged or fact-checked. Video clips of the exchanges are then widely disseminated across social platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, reaching bigger audiences than many traditional media outlets.
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It’s a test run of a new kind of strategy for the social-media era: make yourself impossible to ignore by flooding the online ecosystem with appearances on alternate platforms. The resulting headlines often inflate the candidates’ importance or support, and could ultimately become a headache for President Joe Biden or the Republican frontrunners. These kinds of candidates have “figured out a style of weaponized contrarianism that garners a lot of engagement,” says Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “It’s this ‘vibes only’ approach to mass media.”
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For Kennedy, podcasts and alternative platforms offer a chance to speak to large audiences after more than 15 years of being relegated to the fringes for his anti-vaccine activism. Now, the views that once got him banned from social media for violating disinformation policies are being widely circulated on the same platforms through clips of his podcast appearances.
“Our strategy is not complex or targeted…[but] we’re getting a lot of traction,” Kennedy told TIME in an interview in June, explaining that he views podcasts as a medium he can use to his advantage the same way his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, used television in the 1960s. “It’s just about telling the truth to people and listening to what they say…and big groups of people are listening. So that’s nice.”
After appearing on Rogan’s massively popular podcast on June 15, Kennedy’s 2021 book The Real Anthony Fauci—in which he accuses the top U.S. infectious-disease doctor of orchestrating “a historic coup d’état against Western democracy”—shot up to become the #10 best-selling book on Amazon, his publisher says. It has sold more than 100,000 copies since he announced his presidential run. “I’m not attracted at all to soundbite politics,” Kennedy explained in a June 8 interview with TIME. “I’m better at kind of explaining the complexities of issues, so I think [podcasts] are a much better medium for me. And the weird thing about it is that people are listening, particularly young people.”
For Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old biotech entrepreneur, the attention podcasts can bring has helped build name recognition and a larger online following. Previously little-known to most Republican voters, Ramaswamy announced in April that he was launching a daily podcast called “The Vivek Show,” to “pull back the curtain on the political process.” It’s reportedly part of a $10 million investment in media production that he plans to continue even if he drops his presidential bid, which is built on a promise to take the America First agenda “further than Trump.”
Since that rollout, Ramaswamy has posted 55 episodes–an average of one episode every day and a half. He’s interviewed a host of conservative personalities, including former Attorney General Bill Barr and former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch. In the meantime, he has gone on more than 70 podcasts himself, delivering polished, video-clip-friendly talking points to conservative commentators like Dan Bongino and Jordan Peterson as well as appearing on shows like “Retirement Talk” and “Almost 30,” a women’s wellness podcast.
Read More: Why Vivek Ramaswamy is Defending Trump More Forcefully Than Other 2024 Contenders.
The medium comes with a significant audience. Despite an increasingly saturated market, podcasts have continued to grow in popularity over the last decade. As of 2023, 42% of Americans over the age of 12 listen to at least one podcast per month, according to Edison Research, up from 12% in 2013. Political podcasts in particular have taken off, with everyone from Trump adviser Steve Bannon to former Obama strategist David Axelrod and Sen. Ted Cruz hosting regular conversations which are increasingly filmed and distributed as short clips. In right-wing media, these podcasts and online shows seem to have stepped into the role of conservative talk radio, creating popular commentators like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino.
The podcast strategy won’t necessarily translate into votes. Ramaswamy is currently averaging 3% in polling nationally. While Kennedy started off polling around 20% with Democrats largely due to his name ID, analysts predict his track record of espousing conspiracies and increasingly close ties to right-wing personalities ultimately won’t fly with party voters—in one June poll, his net favorability among Democrats had fallen from 18% to 7%, while it jumped to 29% among Republicans.
But to these candidates, the polls may not be the point. What matters is the exposure the medium provides—and the fact they will continue to get more of it if they, and the people they’re speaking to, are very loud and very online. “This is the first time there’s someone actually speaking my language,” says Justin Rezvani, a 34-year-old social media entrepreneur and Kennedy supporter who says he has never voted in a presidential election before but likes the candidate’s views on cryptocurrency and censorship. “It’s my personal belief that the 2024 election will not be determined by mainstream media approach…but will be built upon this decentralized podcast and creator network that distributes the message.”
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