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 MaddowRachel Maddow extends contract with MSNBC: reports OAN loses appeal in defamation lawsuit against Rachel Maddow Nunes sues MSNBC, alleging Rachel Maddow defamed him 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 TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims 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 WarrenThe Trojan Horse of protectionism Federal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (D-Mass.) gave her first major interview after announcing her candidacy to Maddow.
Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Harris facilitates coin toss at Howard University football game Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees The FBI comes up empty-handed in its search for a Jan. 6 plot MORE (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Fighting poverty, the Biden way Top Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home confinement program MORE (D-N.J.), Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails How lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Blumenthal calls on Buttigieg to investigate American Airlines-JetBlue partnership LGBT film festival to premiere documentary about Pete Buttigieg 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 Hannity90 percent of full-time Fox Corp. employees say they're fully vaccinated: executive The Memo: California recall exposes the limit of Trump's GOP Republicans divided on Trump's strength as possible 2024 candidate 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 Bullock65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal Arkansas, New Jersey governors to head National Governors Association Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner 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 BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE (D) has not appeared on Maddow’s show since announcing his bid on April 25. Nor has Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersManchin suggests pausing talks on .5 trillion package until 2022: report Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Sanders calls deadly Afghan drone strike 'unacceptable' 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.