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Luck matters – in politics, in journalism, in life. So does preparation.
Not long ago This American Life, the National Public Radio program and wildly successful podcast, decided to take on as its weekly theme the strategies through which the lesser known of the multitude of Democrats running for president are attempting to climb above 1 or 2 percent in the polls. How to do what Jimmy Carter did more than 40 years ago, emerging from the relatively obscure position of governor of Georgia to the Oval Office?
The segment is aptly called “The Wannabes.”
Reporter Zoe Chace chased candidates all over Iowa, where they were seemingly trying to personally persuade every citizen over the age of 15 – and some even younger – to support them in the nation’s first contest of the 2020 election cycle. You can hear Kirsten Gillibrand reading a children’s book she wrote herself to an audience of two kids.
Producer Ben Calhoun goes with businessman Andrew Yang, whose campaign is almost entirely based on the unlikely proposal of giving every U.S. adult $1,000 a month as an income supplement, to the home a couple who pretend that he is personally giving them that amount as a demonstration.
This American Life’s founder, host, and executive producer, Ira Glass, wanted to focus on the televised debates as a way for candidates to break away from the pack. He decided to see if he could attend a candidate’s preparation for the June 26 event in Miami that kicked off the debate season.
Glass got lucky. Two days before the debate, he found himself in a Miami hotel conference room for a day-long session – the second-to-last of the equivalent of four full prep days – where he would witness the careful plotting and practicing of what became the “spontaneous” moment that was regarded as the “breakout” exchange of the evening. He spent that day with Julián Castro.
It was a lucky as well for the former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary. This American Life, which has been telling stories since 1995, consistently ranks among the top two of the thousands of podcasts flooding cell phones. An average 2.5 million listeners download it weekly, and hordes more listen to the program broadcast on most local NPR stations.
It was no cameo appearance for Castro. His segment runs 22 minutes, nearly a third of the podcast’s 70 minutes, and he comes off as both diligent and relaxed.
Glass puts you in the room with his own word paintings and with brief clips of interviews of Castro and the members of his staff who are drilling him. The walls were plastered, said Glass, with “big pages torn from flip charts, each with a different topic and then three or four possible talking points.”
Castro couldn’t know what questions he would be asked, so he had to be ready to address numerous topics. In each answer, Glass reported, his staff wanted him to work in three specific elements.
They wanted “some of his personal story – raised by a single mother in a working class neighborhood, that kind of thing. They want him to talk about the stuff he has done in previous jobs in government, to prove that he is capable. And, of course, they want him to talk about what he is going to do next if he gets the job of president.”
That’s all in his allotted 60 seconds. That’s why drilling and drilling and drilling is so important. But there’s a problem more fundamental than answering questions: It’s getting the time to answer them.
Castro told Glass he and his staff had studied not only the other candidates, but also the moderators.
“And they don’t have a track record of enforcing time very well,” Castro said. “So you have to be mindful, ok, that if they’re going to let people go, the worst-case scenario is not that I’m flat. It’s that I don’t get any time whatsoever, because people got into a skirmish and other people butted in, and all of a sudden the time is gone.”
So one of the large pages on the wall was titled: “Interruptions.” Castro told Glass that he is not entirely comfortable interrupting people, but that’s why they have drills. It’s like fight training. You have to be prepared not only to punch, but also to counterpunch.
The “Interruptions” page had two brief speeches outlined on it. One was on police brutality, and Castro did work it in – complete with a partial list of the names of people of color who died at the hands of police or while in police custody. But it was the second topic – the need to revoke Section 1325 of the United States code that criminalizes unauthorized entry, since that is what the Trump administration used to separate children from their families – that hit pay dirt.
So when Cory Booker was asked a question on immigration, Castro jumped in uninvited.
“If I might, just very briefly, my plan …” he began politely. He went on, as planned, to call for all the candidates on the stage to join him, noting that Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee already had called for its repeal. And when fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke spoke next on immigration, Castro hammered him. It was that exchange that elevated Castro.
Glass played a clip of CNN commentator Van Jones excitedly exclaiming, “It was Castro who came out of nowhere. It was Castro who did the Texas takedown. Turned around, clocked Beto.”
From that one brief, well-prepared “spontaneous” moment, Castro generated a huge jump in Google searches for him, a fundraising day 32 times what he was getting before the date, and invitations to a number of national TV talk shows.
A few days later, one major poll would show him having jumped from 1 percent in the polls to 4 percent.
It wouldn’t hold. Of 12 significant polls listed by RealClearPolitics since July 1, one has Castro at 3 percent, two have him at 2 percent and the rest at 1 percent or less. Still, the buzz clearly helped Castro surpass the 130,000 individual donors needed to qualify for the next round of debates in the fall – if he can bump his polls up to 2 percent.
One thing is sure: If he does get in those debates, he will be well prepared. And he won’t hesitate to interrupt.
You can listen to the program here. I encourage you to listen to the entire program, but if you want to go straight to the Castro segment, it begins at 15:50.