Pod Save America: Media Mobilization One Election at a Time By Joshua Turner
In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, many in the media were forced to grapple with how they had been so wrong in prognosticating the outcome. The hosts of a then little known podcast, Keepin it 1600, were particularly shocked. Former Obama speechwriters Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett, along with former Obama National Security Council Spokesperson Tommy Vietor, would use the occasion of the Democratic party’s worst and perhaps most stunning defeat in decades to launch a media company aimed at both informing disaffected Democrats and driving them to engage through activism and organizing. This combination of commentary and activism is not terribly common but has proven to be successful.
Their flagship show of Crooked Media, Pod Save America (co-hosted by former Obama Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer) is downloaded about 1.5 million times per episode and serves as the most popular center-left podcast, skewing towards a more establishment audience than farther left shows like Chapo Trap House and drawing from their experiences inside the beltway to inform their audiences. What really separates those at Crooked Media from those on the farther left is their general faith in institutions and their willingness to work from within traditional power structures by encouraging others to canvass, call or write their representatives, and to vote.
Judging by the 2018 midterm results, they have certainly had an impact; Take for instance, the “Crooked 8,” Republican House members in California (Crooked Media is headquartered in Los Angeles) that had targeted for defeat by the Crooked hosts early on in the mid-term process. Seven of the eight candidates were defeated with only Devin Nunes able to barely eek out a victory.
Through their Vote Save America initiative and partnerships with groups like Swing Left, they were able to raise millions of dollars for Democratic candidates across the country while specifically pointing out candidates that were in tough races and needed the money. The group often takes their show on the road, selling out large venues usually designated for concerts and sporting events and even landed a HBO broadcast version of their podcast in the final days of the 2018 midterms. While there were certainly a myriad of factors that led to historic gains for Democrats, Pod Save America is part of that story.
Given both their popularity and effectiveness, it should come as no surprise that Crooked Media will serve as a sought after venue for 2020 candidates to make their case. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren (just last week) have all appeared on the show, eager to convince listeners that they have what it takes to defeat Donald Trump. For their part, the hosts have chosen not to formally endorse any candidate but rather serve as a forum for candidates to make their case to Democratic voters. They have made putting eventual Democratic nominee in the best position possible their top priority, in part by creating a donation pool that will eventually go to whomever wins the nomination.
While not playing favorites, Favreau, Lovett, Vietor, and Pfeiffer are also not at all reluctant to question candidates for missteps or policy positions while also showing a willingness to take stances on issues that are important to Democratic voters; filibuster reform has, for example, served as an indicator to the hosts, Favreau in particular, about the level of seriousness candidates possess to actually make their progressive legislative plans a reality. Given the scope of Pod Save America listeners, candidates can be sure to hear questions like these posed to them at town halls by voters if not by the hosts themselves on the show.
All of this means that, when trying to gauge what candidates are looking good in the Democratic primary, Pod Save America, in the form of both the hosts and those that tune in, will likely be a reliable barometer. Additionally they have a unique ability to shape the conversation around Democratic policy priorities, allowing them to have an effect on how candidates have to address certain issues. Outside of perhaps MSNBC’s weeknight cable news shows, it is difficult to imagine any organization having a more outsized impact on Democrats than Crooked Media.
Joshua Turner is a Masters of International Relations candidate at American University