The path to the Democratic presidential nomination begins in Iowa and New Hampshire — but these days it also includes a preliminary stop in Studio 3A at NBC News headquarters in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
That’s the studio from which Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowO’Rourke says he can ‘do a better job’ communicating 2020 message The Hill’s 12: 30 Report: Trump defends tariffs as China retaliates Mueller’s facts vs Trump’s spin MORE broadcasts her eponymous MSNBC show — the highest-rated on the liberal-leaning network — five nights a week.
An in-person interview at Maddow’s desk has become a rite of passage for many of the Democrats seeking to oust President TrumpDonald John TrumpDon’t tell Marianne Williamson she can’t win The Memo: 2020 Dems line up for Maddow primary Interior’s border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role MORE next year.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) was the latest to make the trek on Monday evening as he sought to reset a campaign that has been lackluster so far.
O’Rourke admitted to Maddow, “I recognize that I can do a better job … of talking to a national audience beyond the town halls we are having.”
Evincing a combination of familiarity and deference toward the 46-year-old anchor, O’Rourke said he was taking “an opportunity to answer your questions, Rachel, and address those who may not have been able to attend [the town halls] and make sure that they can hear what this campaign is about.”
He is the latest in a long line of candidates to avail themselves of the platform offered by Maddow’s prime-time show.
In January, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Memo: 2020 Dems line up for Maddow primary Sanders gets assist from Ocasio-Cortez against Biden Dems plan 12-hour marathon Mueller report reading at Capitol MORE (D-Mass.) gave her first major interview after announcing her candidacy to Maddow.
Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Memo: 2020 Dems line up for Maddow primary Overnight Health Care — Presented by Campaign for Accountability — House lawmakers offer measure on surprise medical bills | Top Dems press DOJ on ObamaCare document requests | Pennsylvania AG sues Purdue Pharma over opioid epidemic Coalition of women’s groups call out ‘sexist’ coverage of 2020 race MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandMcSally to introduce military sexual assault reform bill Why candidates should embrace public campaign finance system Coalition of women’s groups call out ‘sexist’ coverage of 2020 race MORE (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBiden says he’d be open to breaking up Facebook Overnight Health Care — Presented by Campaign for Accountability — Measles outbreak tops 830 cases in US | Inslee signs nation’s first public option insurance bill | Maryland raises tobacco buying age to 21 Overnight Energy: States fight Trump rollback of Obama lightbulb rules | Greens seek hearing over proposed rule on energy efficiency tests | Top Dem asks GAO to investigate climate threat MORE (D-N.J.), Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellButtigieg jokes ‘Veep’s’ Selina Meyer would be ‘well matched’ with Trump in 2020 Health care, climate change top issues for Iowans ahead of caucuses: analysis Michael Bennet must find a way to stand out in the crowd MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegTrump mocks rivals at official event Dem strategist: ‘Whoever wins South Carolina will be well on their way to the nomination’ Delaney hits Warren for Fox town hall snub: If you’re not using it, I will MORE (D) are among the other candidates who have taken their seats since then.
One aspect of Maddow’s appeal for candidates is obvious. She draws a big crowd — something that is increasingly rare and valuable in the fragmented media environment.
“The Rachel Maddow Show” averaged 2.6 million viewers in April, according to the latest ratings from Nielsen, putting her roughly 500,000 viewers ahead of the second-place show on the network, anchored by Lawrence O’Donnell. His show, at 10 p.m. ET, immediately follows Maddow’s 9 p.m. slot.
Maddow’s average viewership, as MSNBC’s public relations team made sure to note, was more than twice that of CNN in the same time slot. Fox News Channel’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityMcConnell: Trump shouldn’t worry about Trump Jr. subpoena Trump on 2020 Dems: ‘SleepyCreepy Joe over Crazy Bernie’ Trump jokes after rallygoer suggests migrants be shot MORE, however, had a higher total audience than either MSNBC or CNN at 9 p.m. in April, averaging 3.086 million viewers.
But Democratic insiders say the payoff from a coveted one-on-one with Maddow isn’t just about the raw numbers.
“It signals a couple of different things. In one sense, you’ve arrived — millions of people will be looking at you in a forum that will allow you to get your message out,” said Democratic strategist Lynda Tran.
“It also speaks to where your place is in the zeitgeist,” she added. “If Rachel Maddow and her team think you are enough of a draw, that says a lot about you and your own ability.”
There is also the potential for the kind of unexpected, authentic moment that can help a candidate break through the cacophony that already envelops the Democratic field.
Maddow’s interview with Buttigieg, for example, included a conspicuously personal exchange about coming out as gay.
The 37-year-old mayor said he was 33 when he came out, prompting Maddow, who is a lesbian, to remark, “I think it would have killed me to be closeted for that long.”
Buttigieg explained, “There’s this war that breaks out, I think, inside a lot of people when they realize they might be something that they’re afraid of, and it took me a very long time to resolve that.”
Such personal moments are relatively rare for Maddow, who made her name more through making policy discussions prime time-friendly and less through intimate revelations.
“She is one of the few shows that lets candidates really present substantively. She also gets under the real motivations of candidates,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Lake also noted that Maddow “is one of the few women leaders” in media and that “Democratic primaries are 59 percent women.”
There is, of course, one other obvious advantage.
In such a huge Democratic field — Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockMontana becomes first state to implement net neutrality after FCC repeal Montana governor: Gianforte lying about reporter fight Arch Coal backs out of Montana mine project MORE (D) became the 23rd major candidate on Tuesday morning — the attention that can be conferred by someone of Maddow’s status can be oxygen, especially for lesser-known candidates.
Given the size of the field, “it is really hard for candidates to get their ideas out there,” said Daniella Gibbs Léger, executive vice president for communications and strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
“Yes, sound bites get picked up, but if you really want to say something in-depth about your policy on child care or comprehensive immigration reform, she provides a great forum,” Léger said.
Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Robinette BidenDon’t tell Marianne Williamson she can’t win The Memo: 2020 Dems line up for Maddow primary Prank-loving Jill Biden once stuffed herself in an overhead bin MORE (D) has not appeared on Maddow’s show since announcing his bid on April 25. Nor has Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders gets assist from Ocasio-Cortez against Biden 3 Florida radio stations to broadcast Trump speeches every hour until 2020 election Overnight Energy: House Dems propose billions for green programs Trump sought to cut | Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez tout Green New Deal, jab at Biden | Biden fires back at criticism on climate MORE (I-Vt.) done so recently, though he has appeared in the past.
It seems likely they will ultimately do so, even if that could be a more challenging moment for the centrist Biden than for Sanders.
Maddow’s own proudly liberal viewpoint, of course, alienates a swath of the country just as surely as it enamors her fans.
Among Republicans, including some close to Trump, her name has become synonymous with what they see as outside-the-mainstream leftist politics.
Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for Trump’s reelection campaign, told The Hill in an email that Maddow’s prominence was testament to the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party.
“There is no centrist lane in the 2020 Democrat contest. The activist left requires purity of thought and absolute adherence to their socialist policy proposals,” Murtaugh said.
“So it’s not surprising that all the candidates are lining up, hoping to get Rachel Maddow’s seal of approval,” he added. “If they’re looking for adoring approval of their socialist policies, that show is the place to be.”
Maddow would likely take such criticism as a backhanded compliment.
Either way, it seems certain that the Democratic presidential candidates will continue to beat a path to her door.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.