IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Reality bites: Candidates sidelined by coronavirus try transforming into small-screen stars

Unable to campaign, politicians are creating podcasts, hosting interviews and streaming live — all in the service of reaching voters during a pandemic.
Image: Politicians, sidelined and barred from traditional campaigning in the coronavirus era, are adapting by... turning into talk show hosts
Politicians, sidelined and barred from traditional campaigning in the coronavirus era, are adapting by becoming the hosts of their own reality shows. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Late last month, Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., went live on Facebook for a lesson from celebrity chef Tiffani Faison.

As Faison, a Boston-based "Top Chef" finalist, tried to coach the family through her recipe for soy-cola chicken, Kennedy's wife told their 4-year-old daughter, Eleanor, that they would be smashing some garlic to help prepare the meal.

"I have no idea what that means," Eleanor responded.

The amateur cooking show offered an inside look at the Kennedy kitchen — and made no mention of his primary campaign to oust Democratic Sen. Ed Markey. But streaming slices of his daily reality amid the coronavirus lockdown is part of Kennedy's recent efforts to blanket social media with content that isn't exclusively him speaking directly to a camera.

Coronavirus restrictions have barred candidates from traditional campaign stops and fundraisers, often sidelining them as the pandemic dominates local and national news. In response, politicians are trying to campaign by becoming content creators — making vlogs, hosting podcasts and conducting interviews with celebrities on Instagram Live. Some, like former Vice President Joe Biden, have sought to replicate the polish of a TV appearance, while still more are embracing "reality" as captured via laptop or cellphone to find ways to break through to constituents and, they hope, earn votes.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Kennedy, 39, like the many other office holders and seekers who are limited in how they can interact with the public during the pandemic, has become an avid vlogger, broadcasting an array of internet TV shows from his home.

They reveal "the truer parts about my family," he told NBC News, such as when he's "trying to cook with a 2-year-old that's literally trying to climb up your leg and on top of your head and a little girl that just cannot stop — literally cannot stop — singing 'Frozen' songs all day long."

"There's literally millions of other people that have now seen the inside of our house who otherwise wouldn't have. You see parts of me and our family that aren't exactly ... us at our most polished," he said.

Mike Larsen, a Democrat competing in a three-way primary to face Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has embraced the new style of campaigning. For Larsen, a former Capitol Hill staffer who also worked as a writer on shows like "Real Time with Bill Maher" and "The Drew Carey Show," the demands of a coronavirus campaign seem to come more naturally. Larsen now hosts a show on Facebook called "Open Mike," where one recent conversation with an old entertainment industry connection turned to how he would handle a zombie apocalypse.

"For me, the first few I did were just me sitting and talking to the camera and taking questions," Larsen said. "And pretty early on realized, well, this is kind of boring every night."

Since shifting the format of his streams, Larsen said, he's "been able to keep it pretty eclectic for people."

Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, had a TV studio built in his basement and launched a podcast called "Here's the Deal," on which he's interviewed his former top aide Ron Klain and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But higher production values haven't necessarily meant a smooth transition from the trail.

"Here I am, used to being in a television studio or standing out before a couple thousand people talking — and here I am in my basement," Biden said during a recent digital campaign event, adding, "I'm trying to learn, too."

Biden, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has hosted virtual town halls, interviewed front-line health care workers and discussed legislation pending before Congress in his sessions, usually streamed on his campaign website and posted to YouTube.

Before he ended his presidential bid, Sanders would often begin his streams with an opening monologue focused on an issue of the day before bringing in a wider panel of experts, lawmakers and others. Commercial breaks were replaced by musical acts.

An aide compared planning the events to putting together an hour of television, in which bookings are considered and topics are debated — with one key difference.

When a newscast "is preparing their show for the day, they've got a team of producers who are culling stuff from everywhere, and it's a lot of written material," Anna Bahr, the campaign's deputy national press secretary, said in an interview before Sanders left the race. "This is Bernie. ... He is the director. He is the producer. He is the writer. He is this show, and he is determining who the guests are, and there's only one topic right now."

President Donald Trump has stuck to his daily presidential briefings, which often run longer than two hours, as his main way to reach the masses, although he has said he wants to get back to doing campaign rallies as soon as possible. He has often fondly pointed to a New York Times report finding that, early on, his coronavirus briefings were pulling in audiences akin to those of a season finale of ABC's "The Bachelor" or ESPN's "Monday Night Football." The Times reported last week that he considered launching a two-hour daily radio show but opted against doing so for fear that it would encroach on conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh's territory.

Down the ballot, other candidates are experimenting with their social programming. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, takes questions from her kitchen, while former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican running for the Senate, produced a three-part course on the Constitution, which he delivered in Facebook videos that each ran longer than an hour.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a onetime Democratic presidential candidate now running for the Senate, has hosted town halls that resembled episodes of "Hollywood Squares" and conducted interviews with front-line health care workers and leaders such as former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Hickenlooper has made a point of jokingly asking guests what song they sing to themselves in their head to span the 20 seconds they're supposed to be washing their hands. His song is "This Land is Your Land."

Still, no race has seen the streaming battle play out quite like the one between Kennedy and Markey in Massachusetts. Kennedy has regularly uploaded episodes he calls "Kennedy Evening Broadcasts"to Facebook that feature interviews with guests from front-line workers to the celebrity chef José Andrés, along with weekly question-and-answer sessions with viewers and morning check-ins that have, in some instances, exceeded 1 million views.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Markey, meanwhile, has conducted interviews on Facebook with subjects from labor and health care leaders to the renowned Boston sports columnist Bob Ryan, a classmate of Markey's at Boston College. The two discussed not only the coronavirus crisis but also famed Boston sporting events like Game 6 of the 1975 World Series and the 2001 AFC championship game. The senator also launched a podcast titled "Markey on the Mic."

"Well, we're in a competition for the same seat, so everything's going to be competitive," Markey campaign manager John Walsh said.

Kennedy said the streams have provided "an added level of humanity and connection, because you're not having these carefully crafted, staged and produced town halls or conventions or TV spots."

"You're getting a Facebook Live from my couch in my living room after breakfast from two kids where they had too much sugar," he said.

Mia Fermindoza, video director for Sanders' campaign, said such candidate content may have a future beyond the coronavirus shutdowns.

"The expectations of what we see onscreen have changed," she said in an interview. "You type in right now on a PC, you see a lot of people talking into their laptop and into their phones, and I think that's kind of an intimacy that we often crave, especially in a moment like this."

Not long after he quit the Democratic race, Sanders participated in one his most viral streams yet, discussing the state of the campaign and his support for Biden with the rap star Cardi B on Instagram.

"I can tell you've been in quarantine for a while now, with those nails," she told Sanders at one point. "It's OK, Uncle Bernie."