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678: The Wannabes

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace.

Zoe Chace

Ira Glass.

Ira Glass

So you went to Iowa.

Zoe Chace

I did. You know, there are like 50,000 Democratic candidates running for president. They're all in Iowa.

Ira Glass

It's what? It's 25 right now.

Zoe Chace

It's 25 right now.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm.

Zoe Chace

And there's this one political writer, Dave Weigel with the Washington Post, he writes this newsletter thing called The Trailer three times a week. And he has this particular superpower where somehow, he seems to be with every single candidate who's running at the exact same time.

So at this moment, where everything seems like this grand 25 ring circus with this race, he seemed like maybe the very best person in the world to watch this with. When there's the next president, he'll have seen every moment, not skipping anything. Hopefully, he will understand why it happened.

Ira Glass

And so you basically wanted to see the whole election all at once the way he does.

Zoe Chace

Yeah. And it's so crazy traveling through primary states with him. He knows these places so well. In Iowa, we pulled up to a gas station.

Dave Weigel

If I had to rank Iowa gas stations, I think QuikTrip, then Kum & Go, then Casey's.

Zoe Chace

Wait. So what's so great about QuikTrip?

Dave Weigel

The current ones, the fairly new ones-- there are some that have been there for a while. But the new ones, I think it might have high quality lids that are like high quality plastic, as opposed to the thing that just breaks--

Zoe Chace

Lids?

Dave Weigel

--after one use. Yeah, lids. And keep in mind. This is the only taste I'm going to have for a few hours, and I need the caffeine. So I've put thought into it. And I have colleagues who are--

Zoe Chace

We were leaving a Hickenlooper event and racing over to a Beto event.

Ira Glass

Beto is a former Texas senatorial candidate, Beto O'Rourke. Hickenlooper, John Hickenlooper, former Colorado governor-- it took me so long to read up on all these guys. It took like a day to figure out who's who. Yes.

Zoe Chace

Thank you for that. We flew in. We went to four things in a day. First, Knoxville, Iowa. Weigel looks kind of like a reporter from the '70s-- mustached, notably, casually dressed, hair askew. We're going to this tiny event at this tiny brewpub. And as we're driving up to it, we think we see the candidate standing right outside.

Dave Weigel

It does look like Beto. You're right.

Zoe Chace

That guy?

Dave Weigel

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

I think it's him.

Dave Weigel

He's fairly tall. Huh. That's the outfit, the chinos and everything. That is him. Isn't it surreal? Just like when you're walking through a small town, you're like, oh, that guy running for president. Yeah, all right.

Zoe Chace

I don't know why it's surreal to him. This happens to him literally all the time.

Dave Weigel

I think he's waiting to be introduced. Oh, Amy. That's his wife, who's with him today-- the one woman in the--

Zoe Chace

In that group?

Dave Weigel

Yeah. [CHUCKLES]

Zoe Chace

What?

Dave Weigel

I don't know. Just, it's fun living through things like this.

Ira Glass

Oh, he's really into it.

Zoe Chace

It thrills him. He loves this. There's this one moment after Beto finishes his little talk, and people come up to him and ask questions. And this guy-- it's in this tiny brewery, which kind of looks like a rec room, almost. And this one voter walks up to Beto with a beer in his hand, just like as though he's at some kind of relaxed Friday afternoon cocktail party. And Weigel sees this, and jumps up and kind of elbows people out of the way.

Dave Weigel

Sorry, I'm just trying to get a picture of the guy holding the beer while talking to him, just because it amuses me.

Man

Oh. Yeah, sure.

Zoe Chace

It kind of exemplifies the special part we're in, in the election. There's no Secret Service. There are no real barriers. Anyone can just wander up to a presidential candidate. It's extremely intimate. It's his favorite time of the presidential elections. People are really close to each other. At one point at another event, two of the candidates, Tim Ryan and Jay Inslee, they ran right past each other.

Man 1

You're back in the district.

Man 2

Go get them, Congressman Ryan!

Man 3

You did a great job, Governor! I love your speech!

Man 2

You're awesome!

Man 3

Do it again! I want to hear it one more time.

Zoe Chace

It's almost like Weigel and the candidates are on some kind of a cruise or at a camp together. And they just bump into each other day after day, like, oh, hi again. Oh, I'll see you tomorrow. Oh, I'll see you later. Are you going to be at the pizza thing?

Man 1

Thank you.

Man 2

Thanks a lot. Good to see you again.

Man 1

Yeah. Good to see you.

Man 2

See you at the-- I will not catch up with you in the run. But I'll--

Man 1

Are you going to run it?

Zoe Chace

You also, in this phase of things, you get to see the candidates interacting in the world, the regular world.

Ira Glass

Right.

Zoe Chace

Regular people with just the most random stuff that you wouldn't normally see.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

I had this thing happened to me. I was checking into our hotel in Waterloo, Iowa, right?

Ira Glass

What kind of hotel?

Zoe Chace

Hampton Inn.

Ira Glass

OK.

Zoe Chace

And the girl who's checking us in, who's like 20-ish maybe-- she seems funny and smiley. And she's really surprised to see these reporters there. And it turns out she's never heard of the Iowa caucuses. Even though the state is crawling with these candidates, it's totally possible to lead your life and miss it. So Weigel explains it to her.

Dave Weigel

Yeah, instead of a presidential primary here--

Zoe Chace

All these presidential candidates for the nation to vote, blah, blah, blah. We go upstairs. But my key is demagnetized, so I go back downstairs. I leave all my stuff, including the recorder, there. And when I get downstairs, I see Beto just standing there. And he's trying to get a free bottle of water from the girl. And I'm like, Beto?

Ira Glass

Wait, do you know him?

Zoe Chace

No.

Ira Glass

You've never met him.

Zoe Chace

No. And I say to him, Beto, tell her what you're doing here in Iowa. And she looks at him, and she goes, are you running for president, in this totally sarcastic way. Like of course you're not. And he goes, actually, yes, I am, which is just a weird answer to that question. And she jumps up, goes, yes, queen! And he's like totally taken aback and is like, thank you so much. And she goes, I hope you win the presidency-- like not very sincere.

Ira Glass

And so this is just the world that Weigel was marinating in.

Zoe Chace

He knows them all so thoroughly at this point. He knows them as thoroughly as he knows the gas stations in Iowa. We were at a bar. He starts talking about the jokes that candidates tell when they're out on [INAUDIBLE].

Dave Weigel

The horrible spouse joke. Whereas, Warren has a riff where she talks about dropping out of school. It's like, fell in love. Woo-hoo. Got married, Woo-hoo. Had a baby. Woo. And she just-- it's like a Simpsons joke, almost. She imitates getting less and less excited about her bad life decisions. She's like, and then I met my first husband. Never a good idea when you have to number them, things like that.

My favorite Klobuchar joke is, she talks about how she's Slovenian American. And it's like, and for years, I was the most famous Slovenian American in politics. But then Melania Trump arrived, and you know what? It's like looking in a mirror. You laugh. It's like a [INAUDIBLE]. But Biden does the, my wife is always right joke. Who else does that? People mostly learn to not do that.

Ira Glass

For today on our program, we're in this unusual political moment. The Democrats have even more people running for president than the Republicans did last time. 25 people-- what is that?

Today in our show, we are not going to cover all 25. What we're going to do is we're going to drop in here and there. My sense is that, at this point, everyone is still getting to know who these people are. And so hopefully, you will get in close with some of them and get an impression of them.

And what we're especially interested in in this show is all of the candidates at the bottom. That's the story of this particular moment in the election, is all those people between 0% and 1% in the polls who might still have a chance trying to get noticed and break out of the pack, and join the front runners, which is just an enormously difficult thing to do. And it's just right now starting to shift. How do you get noticed and rise above 1% in this pack of 25? From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Wannabes One

Ira Glass

Act 1.

Zoe Chace

No. No acts today. Let's just drive around.

Ira Glass

So bossy. All right, ma'am. So Zoe, so 25 candidates-- and this political operative explained this to me, and I found it a helpful way to look at this. He said that the best way to picture what is happening right now is that there are four front runners-- Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. And then depending on how you count it, Pete Buttigieg is in there, too.

Their poll numbers are way higher than anybody else. And also, they get most of the donations and most of the press attention, which then generates more donations and more press attention in a kind of self-perpetuating cycle that sucks the air out that all the others want to breathe.

So that's them. And then below those four or five people, there's basically everyone else in the pack of 25, most of them struggling to break 1%. And it seems just very interesting what is happening with them. And so, Zoe, you watched them trying to figure that out.

Zoe Chace

OK. So for example, take John Hickenlooper.

Ira Glass

Former governor of Colorado.

Zoe Chace

His polling is now at less than 1%. If you haven't heard of him, that's probably why. He cannot draw a crowd by himself. If he put out a sign in Iowa today, Hickenlooper Speaks, Please RSVP, probably nobody would come to that event.

Ira Glass

Crickets, right? Yeah. OK.

Zoe Chace

Yeah. So he does these-- they're called retail stops, when a politician tours a factory or whatever. So right now, we're at this brand new distillery in Des Moines, me and Dave Weigel.

Dave Weigel

--because this stuff is actually kind of fun to watch.

Zoe Chace

And we walk in. Hickenlooper and this one elderly Iowa voter are sitting at the bar, the brand new bar in the brand new distillery. It's a totally staged photo op. There are about 20 reporters in a semicircle around them. But obviously, if you look through the camera lens, it looks like it's just Hickenlooper and the voter.

John Hickenlooper

What a pleasure. I can't tell you. This is an absolute honor.

Man

You're running for what?

Zoe Chace

The old guy's like, you're running for what?

John Hickenlooper

The highest office of the land-- President of the United States.

Man

Oh, really? OK.

John Hickenlooper

So I was an entrepreneur. I built brew pubs all over the-- mostly over the Midwest. But I built the biggest brew pub in the country, and Denver was my first one. Always in abandoned warehouses. I won the Award of Honor from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I don't know what that's good for.

Ira Glass

It's so strange that these guys actually-- they do have to kind of just brag about themselves to people, huh?

Zoe Chace

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Like people don't know who they are. I mean, not to be mean about it, but people [INAUDIBLE] don't know who they are. So they just have to say, here's all the stuff I've done.

Zoe Chace

Even he gets kind of self-conscious about it.

John Hickenlooper

I call it the fundamental nonsense of Washington, or place of common sense. That's my shtick. But anyway--

Ira Glass

That's my shtick?

Zoe Chace

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Oh, I like that.

Man

Good luck.

Zoe Chace

Good luck, the old guy says to him. 20 people are recording this, and no one is going to use any of this. No one's going to use these quotes, right? We move on to a distillery tour. Hickenlooper has tons of opinions about that. Remember, he was in this business.

John Hickenlooper

I always call it the Haagen-Dazs effect, which is--

Zoe Chace

No one is going to use any of this either. Instead, the reporters just wait til the end. They gather around, they ask him questions about Trump. That stuff, they might use.

Ira Glass

So this whole thing, this whole tour, all of it is just for pictures.

Zoe Chace

Yeah. What the campaign hopes for is that, out of the 25 candidates, tonight viewers will see a picture somewhere of John Hickenlooper drinking a beer in Iowa.

Ira Glass

I don't see how that's going to make him president. That is not going to be enough to take him out of the 1% and put him up there with the front runners.

Zoe Chace

Iowa, though-- voter by voter. These 1%-ers, they're also going around Iowa talking, and talking, and talking to the actual voters, the real human beings who go to the caucuses and vote. And in order to do that, the candidates who can't draw a crowd on their own, one thing those guys do is go to local Democratic clubs. The idea is you do these Democratic clubs for a while, county Democratic clubs, and then you get popular enough to graduate out and draw a crowd on your own.

Ira Glass

Ah.

Zoe Chace

Like Pete Buttigieg, he had to do the Democratic clubs for about a month. He went around introducing himself, and then he graduated out. Now he can draw a crowd on his own. Most of them have not.

Dave Weigel

I remember-- there's a Delaney bumper sticker. They're real.

Zoe Chace

Whoa.

Dave Weigel

There was one that was--

Zoe Chace

What if that's Delaney's car, though?

Dave Weigel

It could be.

Zoe Chace

John Delaney, also at less than 1%, rich guy and former congressman from Maryland. He's doing a meet-and-greet with the Clive County Democrats at Wobbly Boots Barbecue.

John Delaney

So I'm sure this is going to surprise you. I actually believe I have the best [INAUDIBLE].

[LAUGHTER]

But I think what makes it best is it's different, and I can get it done.

Zoe Chace

Delaney's moderate. He's not into Medicare for All. He's not into the Green New Deal. Even his climate change plan is all wrapped up in red, white, and blue bunting.

John Delaney

Because we're solving the problem the old-fashioned American way by inventing and building.

Man

Hear hear!

[APPLAUSE]

Zoe Chace

The room is packed, actually. People here are eating John Delaney up.

Ira Glass

So it's working.

Zoe Chace

Yeah. I came to see exactly this, one of these 1%-ers winning people over to their side. And Delaney is betting his chips on Iowa. He's got eight offices there. That's more than anyone else, as of a couple weeks ago, anyway. He's been there the most times.

We ran into him in the airport on the way there. It was his 29th trip. He's doing the purist version of this play on the campaign trail, a Jimmy Carter play. It's basically get a huge surge by doing great in the Iowa caucuses, the first in the nation. And the way you do that is voter by voter. That's what he's doing out here.

Dave Weigel

That's what Carter did. Carter was the first candidate who ever did that. They didn't have a caucus before, or they didn't have a caucus people paid attention to before. He lived here. Came in famously second to uncommitted. It was like uncommitted, 30, Carter, 25 or something. And people were like, oh, he beat all the much more famous senators. Who is this guy? So that was more than 40 years ago. But it's still like--

Zoe Chace

So everybody's doing this Carter play. That's how you could think about it.

Dave Weigel

A lot of them.

Zoe Chace

I talked to one voter. He liked this meeting so much, he said he might caucus for Delaney. He might. He's still shopping around. But the number of people shopping has dropped since the first debate. And the window's closing for the 1%-ers.

Ira Glass

The debates-- they are probably the biggest chance that any of these underdogs get to rise out of the underdog pack and come barking to the forefront.

Zoe Chace

The next one's at the end of the month. There has been one so far, of course.

Ira Glass

And two days before the first debate, the team for one of the candidates, as you know, Zoe, let me watch a full day of debate prep. And by sheer luck, it was the candidate that most of the media declared the breakout star of the first night of the debate, Julián Castro. Zoe, you ready to hear the story?

Zoe Chace

Obviously.

Ira Glass

OK. Here is the team that got him to victory.

Ira Glass

OK, so the three of you, have you ever done debate prep before?

Maya Rupert

Nope.

Jen Fiore

No.

Sawyer Hackett

No.

Ira Glass

Meet Maya Rupert, Jen Fiore, and Sawyer Hackett, the campaign manager, communications advisor, and national press secretary for Julián Castro. Castro was mayor of San Antonio, then ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama. They all worked for Castro there. If you add it up, they had done three full days of debate prep before this one, the one that I saw. And they were going to do one more after that. That is how important this is to them.

Derek Eadon

All right, so this is what we've got on the agenda for this morning.

Ira Glass

We're in a hotel conference room in Miami. All over the walls are these big pages torn from flip charts, each with a different topic and then three or four possible talking points for the candidate to use in the debate that they worked out in previous sessions. The guy talking is deputy campaign manager, Derek Eadon, who is running these sessions. And he's up in front by the easel with the flip chart.

And the candidate is standing at one of five podiums in front of the room. He's in jeans and a white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up, immaculately clean, white Adidas, iced tea, which, by the way, he told the New York Times is his comfort food on the road.

Derek Eadon

And then we want to talk through a little bit of closing statement.

Ira Glass

Castro's staff, I should say, is deeply aware that most voters still do not know who Julián Castro is. And they told me that success in the first debate, to them, would be something very basic-- that voters would notice Castro, that he's in the race. Here's Jen Fiore, his senior communications advisor.

Jen Fiore

Maybe it changes their math, right? Maybe they were supporting one person. They thought, oh, but wait. But wait. I heard a lot of interesting stuff from Julián Castro, and I've got to shift my math.

Ira Glass

One of the flip charts on the wall was, "Top Five Takeaways," meaning the top five things that they want voters to take away from this debate. They read, "I like him," "he won," "game changer," "can handle his own," and "win/beat Trump."

So OK. How do you get voters to change the math? If you think about it, the debate means 10 candidates standing on stage for 120 minutes, two hours. So that's 10 minutes per candidate. But you take away commercial breaks and questions. What it leaves, the average talking time for each candidate is actually eight minutes-- eight minutes to implant yourselves into the brains of millions of people. Eight minutes-- though that is just the average. Not everybody gets that much, which is actually the thing that Castro is most afraid of going into the debate. He says they've studied these moderators.

Julian Castro

And they don't have a track record of actually enforcing time very well. So you've got to be mindful. OK, if they're going to let people go, the worst case scenario is not that I am 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's gone.

Ira Glass

Some candidates just end up getting five minutes. So you have limited time, and you have no idea what they're going to ask you about. And so you have to prepare perfect, pithy answers for every imaginable question. And what perfect means-- Julián's staff wants him to work three specific elements into each of those answers if he can.

They want some of his personal story-- raised by a single mother, working class neighborhood, that kind of thing. They want him to talk about the stuff that he has done in previous jobs in government-- prove that he's capable. And of course, they want him to talk about what he's going to do next if he gets the job of president. All three things in each answer. So for instance, when they're hammering out an answer about climate and the Green New Deal, Castro, he starts pitching policy ideas.

Julian Castro

I think here, we want to stress-- we're going to lead on combating climate change, get to net zero, create jobs in the new energy--

Ira Glass

Then Jen jumps in. Talk more about your experience.

Jen Fiore

Right, but not a lot of an impact. Maybe nobody on the stage, other than maybe Governor Inslee, has actually done the work to help people recover the way that you have, right, as HUD secretary. I remember the trip that you took to Louisiana after that horrendous flood, and--

Ira Glass

Talk about what you've done on climate change, she urges him, which he then incorporates into his next run-through of the answer.

Julian Castro

As Housing Secretary, I worked to make sure that communities could rebuild from natural disasters in a more sustainable way. And as president, the first thing that I would do--

Ira Glass

Notice the pivot there from his previous experience to his plans for the future? What makes all this so tricky is that under the rules of the debate, he has to finish his answer in just 60 seconds. To figure out how to fit everything in, basically, Castro answers the same question over--

Julian Castro

I grew up with a grandmother that had diabetes.

Ira Glass

--and over--

Julian Castro

I grew up with a grandmother who had diabetes.

Ira Glass

--and over--

Julian Castro

I grew up with a grandmother who had diabetes.

Ira Glass

--and over.

Julian Castro

You know, I grew up with a grandmother who had diabetes.

Ira Glass

In case it isn't clear, each of those times, he talks until he reaches one minute.

Julian Castro

And this distinction between physical health care and mental health care.

[TIMER BEEPS]

So was that a minute, or was it mistimed? That seemed like a forever minute. [LAUGHS] Yeah.

Ira Glass

They spend hours doing this. It's tedium chewing over how to best fill those precious eight minutes they're going to get. And of course, the one politician that it's hard to picture doing this is the public speaker who improvises his way through stadium speeches and meet-and-greets at the Korean Demilitarized Zone-- the guy who got his job specifically by not doing this and is beloved by lots of people for not talking like this, the man that Castro hopes is going to be facing off against next year-- Donald Trump.

To break things up during the day, the staff organizes a surprise for Castro, just a little breather to lighten things up. Derek gets out his phone, and people crowd around him.

Derek Eadon

Hello.

Sklar Brothers

Can you see?

Derek Eadon

We can't see just yet.

Ira Glass

It's a call with the Sklar brothers, the comedians and actors, Jason and Randy Sklar, who like Castro. And they've decided that they wanted to pitch jokes for him to use during the debate. The campaign was like, sure, why not?

Derek Eadon

There we go.

Sklar Brothers

All right.

Derek Eadon

There we go. How are you doing?

Sklar Brothers

We're good, man. How are you?

Derek Eadon

That's good. Come take a seat. We've got Secretary Castro right here. We're in the middle--

Ira Glass

Castro met the Sklar brothers when they had him on their podcast. The Sklars are identical twins. And important fact about Julián Castro-- he has an identical twin brother, who's also in politics-- Congressman Joaquin Castro.

Sklar Brothers

You were great on our podcast. Thank you so much.

Julian Castro

Hey, thanks a lot.

Sklar Brothers

And we were thinking about things that you can either take or leave, but it's just thoughts in our brain that you put into your own speak. And so, OK. So do you want to hear what we have so far?

Julian Castro

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go ahead. I'm getting a pad and paper down right here.

Sklar Brothers

This is just a general one. Some folks in this race are against Medicare. I'm for Medicare not only because I think it has value, but also out of respect for some of my older opponents, like Bernie and Biden.

[LAUGHTER]

Julian Castro

That's so true.

Sklar Brothers

They're going to need it. They're going to need it now.

Ira Glass

Hard to imagine a more receptive room for that joke, just [INAUDIBLE] at the time with the front runners in the race. Here's another.

Sklar Brothers

There are more people on this debate stage than at a Trump inauguration.

[LAUGHTER]

Yeah, like there's a lot of people up here. I mean, the height-- how tall are you? You're our height.

Julian Castro

Yeah, 5' 7" or 5' 8". Yeah.

Sklar Brothers

OK, 5' 7", 5' 8". So you're our height. So you're standing next to Cory Booker, who's like 6' 2".

Julian Castro

6' 2", yeah.

Sklar Brothers

[INAUDIBLE] is 6' 4", and de Blasio is 6' 5". So you can say, now I'm standing up here, you can see that I'm not as tall as these guys. But I went to Trump's doctor-- I went to Trump's doctor, and he said I was 6 foot 3.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

The Sklars went through jokes, all of them pretty mean, about candidates Booker, de Blasio, Ryan, Moulton, Klobuchar, and Inslee. And can I just say, respect for anybody who can make a joke about Moulton, Ryan, or Inslee? None of these jokes are going to make the cut, Castro's staff tells me later. Those kinds of jokes just aren't Castro's style. The one joke they could imagine the candidate actually telling onstage at the debate-- I have to say, it really surprised me-- the one about how he's kind of short.

Of course, the other thing that Julián has to practice is reacting to all the other candidates and the moderators. They study videos of his opponents, and they do this.

Millie

Hello, and welcome to sunny Miami, Florida, for the first Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential cycle. I'm Rachel Maddow.

Sawyer Hackett

I'm a lot of people.

Ira Glass

It's a mock debate session. Sawyer and a staffer named Millie play the moderators. Four other staffers stand at podiums flanking Castro's. The men are now in ties and jackets. They want to give Castro the chance to run his answers under debate conditions where he's going to have to wait for his opponents to speak, where he might have to field answers that kind of poke at him.

And I have to say, it was totally charming and fascinating how accurate they tried to be at playing the other candidates in the debate. Out on the road, they've watched these politicians deliver the same lines again and again. So when Derek, who is playing Cory Booker, gets a question about gun violence, he has Booker's lines down cold.

Derek Eadon

I've been waking up in the middle of the night hearing gunshot. I released my policy not far from where Shahad Smith had been killed.

Ira Glass

When a staffer playing Beto O'Rourke is asked about Castro's ability to connect with Latinos and to speak Spanish-- apparently, Castro is not as good at Spanish as Beto is-- fake Beto responds fully in character.

Staffer

Look, Lester, I think it's pretty offensive that you and others continue to say that just because someone doesn't speak Spanish means they can't connect with the Latino vote. There's many ways to connect it. For example, Amy and I are still living in El Paso. I've grown up my entire life there. And so I know the unique challenges that our border community faces.

Ira Glass

In the mock debate, Castro does a relaxed, solid job deploying the answers that he's been working on. But he also gets to practice interrupting other candidates. And this is important because, again, he is worried that other candidates might hog the stage, and he won't get much time or many questions directed at him. And Castro told me that his natural inclination is not to interrupt.

Julian Castro

I mean, for me, I'm not naturally the guy in a group that has to talk all the time, like they would call gunners in law school. You know gunners? People that would, in law school classes, that basically would be the ones always trying to answer the question that a professor would throw out. That's not me.

Ira Glass

I don't know if that's spin or not. But to make sure he does get to talk in the debate, he's keeping in his back pocket two little speeches that he knows are really strong, that if needs be, he's going to bust in and interrupt somebody with. They're actually listed. These two speeches are listed on a flip chart page on the wall that is titled "Interruptions." One of them is listed as "Police Brutality." And in the mock debate, he practices jumping in on another candidate's answer, the guy playing de Blasio, to deliver this.

Staffer

I've been able to deal with this as an executive of America's biggest city. Small town--

Julian Castro

You know, Ken-- Lester, this is important to me. And I've been an executive, too.

Ira Glass

And then Castro delivers an answer that he knows really works.

Julian Castro

But it made me think, what about Eric Garner? And what about Tamir Rice? And what about Michael Brown? What about Laquan McDonald?

Ira Glass

At the real debate, Castro delivered a version of that same speech. But that was not the moment that made him the breakout star. There was also not any of the meticulously crafted three-part messages that I watched him labor over.

And OK, just to step back, if you saw the Democratic debate, you know that the big clip from the second night was Kamala Harris challenging Joe Biden on race. But the big clip from the first night was the other item on Castro's flip chart, list of interruptions. On the chart, it just said "1325 Immigration."

Now 1325, if you're not following this, is the part of the immigration law that makes crossing the border a criminal offense. Castro wants to get rid of that. It would still be illegal to cross the border, but you wouldn't face criminal charges. And the day after I watched him prep, Elizabeth Warren came out in the Huffington Post saying, yeah, I'm with Castro on this 1325 stuff.

So that was the day before the debate. And seeing that, Castro and his staff to talk about maybe they should do more with 1325 in the debate. And they talked in the past about Castro maybe challenging the other candidates on stage to join his position on 1325, but now they decided, yeah, it's not really a maybe. He really should try to make that happen. And Castro walked on stage looking for an opening, which he got about half an hour in.

Cory Booker

I will make sure that, number one, we end the ICE policies.

Ira Glass

Cory Booker is answering a question about immigration. As planned, Julián pounces.

Cory Booker

We actually will lose security and our values. We must fight for both.

Julian Castro

If I might very briefly-- and this is an important point. My plan-- and I'm glad to see that Senator Booker, Senator Warren, and Governor Inslee agree with me on this-- my plan also includes getting rid of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Ira Glass

He then explains 1325.

Julian Castro

And so I want to challenge every single candidate on this stage to support the repeal of Section 1325. 30 seconds.

Ira Glass

The next question is to Beto O'Rourke, and again, Castro swoops in.

Beto O'rourke

We would not put kids in cages. In fact, we would spare no expense to reunite the families that have been separated already.

Ira Glass

This is the exchange that ends up the biggest one of the night. And of course, the thing that made it pop is that all the preparation led to this unprepared, unscripted moment. Unlike all those careful one-minute answers that Julián rehearsed, this felt like and real.

Julian Castro

Let me respond to this very briefly. Actually, as a member of Congress, I helped to introduce legislation that would ensure that we don't criminalize those who are seeking asylum and refuge in this country.

Beto O'rourke

I'm not talking about the ones that are seeking asylum.

Julian Castro

If you're fleeing desperation, then I want to make sure--

Beto O'rourke

I'm talking about everybody else.

Julian Castro

--everybody treated with respect.

Beto O'rourke

I'm still talking about everybody else.

Julian Castro

But you're looking at--

Ira Glass

It all culminates with this.

Julian Castro

I think that you should do your homework on this issue. If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section.

Van Jones

It was Castro that came out of nowhere. Nobody was talking about Castro. He did the Texas takedown. Turned around, clocked Beto.

Ira Glass

This is Van Jones on CNN that night.

Van Jones

I mean, you never saw it coming. He bought himself a lifeline tonight. And that's why I love these debates.

Ira Glass

A lot of the media agreed, and lots of people on Twitter. Google reported a leap in people searching for Castro's name. And it led the campaign to its biggest fundraising day ever, 32 times more than just before the debate. Castro was suddenly invited to be on Morning Joe and tons of other TV shows. The only thing that had not gone optimally was his exit from the stage at the end of the debate. Derek had advised him.

Derek Eadon

I would suggest go talk to Elizabeth Warren as quickly as possible.

Julian Castro

Yeah.

Derek Eadon

Like the dynamic--

Julian Castro

Oh, you mean because you know that the focus is [INAUDIBLE]

Derek Eadon

The dynamic of you, Booker, and Warren genuinely liking each other will be something that will be good for the [INAUDIBLE].

Ira Glass

In fact, at the debate's end, Cory Booker is the one who got to Warren first, and they hugged, while Castro was shaking Tim Ryan's hand. And then Warren walked over to Castro, and they embraced. So it worked out in the end even there, just fine. Overall, a win.

And a week after his breakaway performance in that first debate, Castro was no longer a 1%-er, at least in one poll. ABC News poll put him at 4%, same as Buttigieg, and just below the four frontrunners, Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Harris.

Coming up, we tell you who's going to win the election. Kidding. We did, though, record a candidate who decided to just bribe a voter with $12,000. No joke. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "The Wannabes," stories looking at the 20 or so Democratic candidates who are down around 0, 1, a couple at 2% in the polls, trying to get some attention. And I am joined now in the studio by one of my co-workers here, producer Emanuele Berry.

Emanuele Berry

Hey.

Ira Glass

Hey. First time we're in the studio together.

Emanuele Berry

It is the first time we're in the studio together.

Ira Glass

OK.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah. Let's do this.

Ira Glass

And you had this kind of amazing cinematic recording that you're going to play for the people right now.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah. So I was down in South Carolina and Columbia. And I had this opportunity to pin a mic to Cory Booker, one of the people running for president.

Ira Glass

Mayor of Newark, New Jersey and now Senator of the United States.

Emanuele Berry

Yep, both of those things. And so this recording, it starts we're inside of a building. And then it goes outside, and he's sort of walking this distance to go and give a speech. And it's basically just his point of view in this moment, which is what I like about it so much.

Cory Booker

You can put it on this side.

Emanuele Berry

OK. I can double mic you on the same side.

Cory Booker

Absolutely.

Emanuele Berry

OK.

Staffer

Senator, you ready?

Emanuele Berry

Switch pocket.

Cory Booker

Yes.

Staffer

I'm going to hand you this. You have about 50 people outside, cheering your name. Cheer them on, and then we're going to march. Just follow me the whole way.

Cory Booker

OK.

Staffer

Everyone's going to be behind you, and press is in front of me.

Cory Booker

OK.

Staffer

All right, ready?

Cory Booker

All right.

[CROWD CHEERING]

All right! All right! This is amazing!

Crowd

Cory! Cory! Cory! Cory! Cory! Cory!

Cory Booker

I love you guys!

Emanuele Berry

So in that moment, he just sort of flips from a normal person having a conversation to this super-sized human with a megaphone.

Cory Booker

This is what democracy looks like!

Crowd

This is what democracy looks like!

Cory Booker

This is what democracy looks like!

Crowd

This is what democracy looks like!

Cory Booker

We will rise! We will rise! Everybody, follow me!

Ira Glass

What a weird job these guys have. You walk out into a crowd, and then suddenly, you're supposed to lead the crowd.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah. And there's all these people surrounding him. They've got giant posters of his head, like these Cory Booker head posters.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. So you're there in a crowd, and there's Cory Booker's real bald head. And then in addition, there's giant bald Cory Booker heads?

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, floating around behind him.

Crowd

Cory Booker is the best!

Ira Glass

Can't you say that's like a weird nightmare image, in a way?

[LAUGHTER]

Emanuele Berry

It's very friendly faces, smiling.

Ira Glass

That is true. That's true, yes.

Emanuele Berry

And so they're walking in this giant crowd. And as they're crossing the street, someone comes up to him. And I can't make out exactly what she's saying. I think she's a journalist. And it seems like she's asking a question about the latest sexual assault allegations against President Trump.

Cory Booker

No, this is not the ideal time to talk about this. And why don't you reach out to my team? But it's very disturbing.

Emanuele Berry

What hit me is just everybody wants his attention and his time. The press is in front of him. They've got cameras pointed at him. He's got an aide who's telling him where to go. And then he's leading this group of people, clapping and cheering while walking. It's just so much at once.

Crowd

Give me a Y! Y! [INAUDIBLE] Give me a C! C!

Emanuele Berry

So he's clapping. And then in the middle of all this, someone else walks up to him.

Cory Booker

God bless you, brother. God bless you, brother. [LAUGHS]

Emanuele Berry

It's Jesse Jackson, the civil rights icon, former presidential candidate.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Emanuele Berry

Jesse Jackson is someone who Booker actually talks about sometimes as the first presidential candidate that he ever voted for. And he's just standing next to him. He just pops out of nowhere, and then he's at Booker's side. We're in South Carolina, remember? Jesse Jackson--

Ira Glass

Huge black vote-- every candidate's got to try to get it.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah. And I mean, Jesse Jackson's not the worst person to stand next to. He's from South Carolina. People, they remember when he ran for president. So you sort of have these two black men in dark suits, one of them who tried to be president and the other one who's trying to do so now, parading down the street together.

Cory Booker

Yeah, I'm getting ready to go and speak now.

Emanuele Berry

Jackson is hard to hear. He has Parkinson's. He speaks slow and stumbly, and I don't have a mic on him. Booker seems pretty chummy. He basically says, yes, we need to talk. We need to have a conversation, but not now.

Cory Booker

I'll try to reach out on the number I have for you, but I want to talk to you when we're not-- all this craziness going around. So maybe tomorrow after church? Are you still going to be down here?

Jesse Jackson

In Chicago.

Cory Booker

Oh.

Emanuele Berry

We often see pictures like this, right? Like leaders in suits and conversation in this public space. And I don't know. I like to think of the conversations they're having are about these great and epic things. But maybe they're actually just scheduling phone calls. [LAUGHS]

Cory Booker

So let's just talk on the phone, OK? We need to have a heart-to-heart sooner or later. But look, you are doing it right now. You're continuing to keep people's eyes on justice. Thank you. Love you.

Emanuele Berry

You can hear that Corey says love you to Jackson. I'm not sure if he says it back. I just can't hear it.

Ira Glass

Or Jackson might just be like in Star Wars. I love you. I know.

[LAUGHTER]

Emanuele Berry

I don't think so.

Ira Glass

Jackson leaves him hanging.

Emanuele Berry

I don't think so. I imagine that he returned the expression.

Ira Glass

We don't know for sure, though.

Emanuele Berry

And that was only five minutes and 47 seconds of his day. And it was so intense.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Emanuele Berry

And here's what else he did that day. He had a faith breakfast, barbershop meet-and-greet, Planned Parenthood forum, convention center speech, and then another meet-and-greet. Also, he's a senator. That was just a moment of his day. And I can't imagine having an entire day like that.

Ira Glass

Ugh, it's so much work, and he's not even a frontrunner.

Emanuele Berry

It's so much work just to be there.

Ira Glass

So now I'm joined in the studio by Ben Calhoun. Hey there.

Ben Calhoun

Hey.

Ira Glass

So you went out with one of the 20 or so underdogs in the race, Andrew Yang. And Yang, I think, is interesting because he's actually managed to get a lot more attention than most of the underdogs.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah. He's been doing things like getting on cable shows, profiles in Vanity Fair, Washington Post. And so now he's in this position where he's just trying to fan like whatever little flames he's kindled up until this point.

Ira Glass

And he's gotten that attention because, well, if you know who this guy is, he's this tech guy, former businessman, who organized his whole campaign around this one idea.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, and the idea is that we should give every working age American $1,000 a month. Because what Yang says is he says this whole country is in this big crisis where workers are being replaced by automation and technology. And he thinks that when Democrats usually talk about this, their solutions are weak sauce. He says job retraining programs--

Ira Glass

The Democrats talk about that a lot.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, job retraining. And he says the studies show that they don't work for most people. And most people kind of feel that in their gut.

Andrew Yang

Because it is bull [BLEEP]. And national politicians will talk about retraining until they're blue in the face. They love it, [LAUGHS] because they're far from the group of people that are getting displaced. But if you get close-- I was at a truck stop here in Iowa, Iowa 80. And you walk around there, talking about retraining to those guys, you'll probably get a fist to the face. [LAUGHS] It's irresponsible to talk about that as a mass solution.

Ben Calhoun

So $1,000 a month, which Yang admits, it's not enough for somebody to live on, but he says it's enough to keep somebody afloat. The name for that is Universal Basic Income, UBI. Yang's calling his version of this the Freedom Dividend. But so I went to go see him. He's going to demonstrate how this would work by actually giving somebody $1,000 a month, no strings attached.

Ira Glass

For a year?

Ben Calhoun

A whole year out of his pocket.

Ira Glass

OK. So tell what happened.

Ben Calhoun

So the night before this thing, I'm in the car with Yang and his campaign. And I've been recording them all day. Now it's like 9:30 PM. Everybody's pretty tired.

Staffer

So it's an hour and a half from here. We need to be somewhere at 10:45, so we need to leave--

Ben Calhoun

And they're talking about this UBI event. Yang's like, I'm so psyched. But then right away, there's this logistical problem. To give away $1,000, you need to hand people something. And he doesn't have $1,000 on him.

Andrew Yang

What they want to do is like-- I've gotta stop by an ATM and--

Ben Calhoun

OK, it's pretty much impossible to hear. I'm way in the back. I'm behind Yang's campaign manager, Zach Graumann, and Yang. They're up in front. So I'm just going to tell you how a lot of this dialogue goes.

In that tape there, Yang says, I need to stop by an ATM and get a lot of cash, right? Because Ed McMahon doesn't show up at your house and just tell you you've won publisher's clearing house. That would be lame. You take a photo with the big check. So Yang's like, I got to get out a bunch of cash, to which his campaign manager says, well--

Zach Graumann

So you cannot give cash. We need to think about this.

Ben Calhoun

"So you cannot give cash. We need to think about this," he says. And he gives this big sigh. Because shockingly, the Federal Elections Commission has a problem with a candidate for president giving a voter $12,000 in cash. Go figure. But also apparently, it's fine if that money comes in the form of a check. Again, go figure. Questions start flying. Does anybody have a check? Hey, what about Don?

Staffer 1

Don's son would probably have a check, right? Don's son [INAUDIBLE].

Staffer 2

I can go to a bank and get a check, right?

Ben Calhoun

Yang, meantime, gets out his wallet and starts counting how much cash he has on him. $270, it turns out. And then he starts asking how much ATM limits are. How about a cashier's check, someone says, at a Walgreens on Sunday morning?

Staffer 1

Getting to a Walgreens before 9:00 AM tomorrow.

Staffer 2

That's not impossible.

Ben Calhoun

I'm in a car with a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America who's trying to sell the marquee idea of his campaign, the concept he thinks will save America. And the question of the moment is, can you get a cashier's check at a Walgreens in Des Moines on Sunday morning before 9:00 AM?

The next day, we go to the house of the Freedom Dividend recipients, Kyle and Pam Christiansen. At this point, the campaign hasn't told them they're getting the money, just that they're being considered as finalists. Yang isn't with us. He's waiting to make a surprise entrance.

His staff was not able to get a cashier's check. So instead, Yang has a grand in $20 bills. That means that, legally, the campaign is going to have to hand the Christiansens the money for this photo op, but then take it back afterwards and promise to mail them a check, which seems really pretty tacky to me. But everyone with the Yang campaign is like, we'll figure it out.

Zach Graumann

Hi. I'm Zach.

Pam Christiansen

I'm Pam.

Zach Graumann

Nice to meet you in person, Pam. How are you?

Ben Calhoun

The campaign, I've got to say, picked a really lovely family to get this. Kyle, the son, is 41. He'd applied for this Freedom Dividend on behalf of his mom. About four years ago, the family lost Kyle's dad, Merle, to brain cancer. They seemed like such a tight, loving family.

Merle was a musician. And in their house, every Wednesday, it was music night. They'd play records-- Kiss, Black Sabbath. Merle would play drums, and the kids would dance around, which is how, I suppose, Kyle ended up being a musician, too.

Anyway, about a year after Merle died, Pam was also diagnosed with cancer. The day she was diagnosed-- her birthday-- her boss called her to tell her he was firing her because she'd had to miss too much work. Pam worked as an aide for disabled adults, which she said was hard, but she loved it.

After that, Kyle dedicated himself to taking care of Pam. And Pam, now in remission, still has a hard time getting around. Kyle's been piecing together work-- auto repair, computer repair, music work when he can get it. But it's hard making sure he's there for his mom.

The monthly bills are about $1,300, and they barely get covered. So $1,000 would mean a lot. Kyle, though, he says he'd like to see his mom spend at least some of this imaginary money, even just a little, on something genuinely frivolous.

Kyle Christiansen

Yeah, I'd just like to see her just go buy something because she wants to and not out of necessity.

Pam Christiansen

But there's priorities, too, so.

Ben Calhoun

Well, what are some of the things that-- I feel like you get sick, those bills pile up, you start to give things up. I mean, what are some of the things that you've given up in the last few years?

Kyle Christiansen

Are you talking about like what we have given up, or sold, or that kind of stuff?

Zach Graumann

Yeah. Just like-- yeah, just since the money's been tighter.

Kyle Christiansen

Yeah, I know for me, I used to have a full-blown recording studio here in town. And I've always kind of held on to all that equipment hoping to set one up somewhere. I've sold darn near all that equipment, and just kind of have bare bones, bare minimum. I sold my last two guitars that I could possibly part with last week. So-- oh my gosh, there's Andrew Yang himself.

[DOOR BELL RINGS]

Pam Christiansen

Oh, yes.

Ben Calhoun

Kyle later told me, when he'd asked the campaign if Yang was coming, the staffer he was talking to on the phone hesitated and then said, no, in this way that Kyle figured Yang probably was coming. But he and Pam both act surprised. Andrew Yang offers to take off his shoes in the house.

Kyle Christiansen

Nope, nope, you're fine.

Andrew Yang

I am Asian, so.

Kyle Christiansen

No, come on.

Andrew Yang

I'll take them off.

Pam Christiansen

Hey, Mr. Yang. How are you?

Andrew Yang

I'm doing great. You must be Pam.

Pam Christiansen

Yes, I'm Pam.

Andrew Yang

Thank you for having me here.

Pam Christiansen

Yes.

Andrew Yang

So I'm here to let you know that you will be receiving the Iowa Freedom Dividend starting July 1.

Pam Christiansen

Oh!

Andrew Yang

So congratulations.

Pam Christiansen

Thank you.

Ben Calhoun

If Yang did this for everyone, if he gave every adult $12,000 a year, it would cost the government $2 trillion, give or take. The current federal budget is $4 trillion. So we're talking about a massive realignment of the economy and redistribution of wealth. Yang has projections on how all this could be paid for, and they include some very optimistic assumptions, all for a theory that's never been tested on anywhere near the scale.

Yang starts to explain to the Christiansens how this is going to work for them. But mostly, he tells them how grateful he is to help them out, in a way that feels pretty nice, actually. And it kind of drains a little awkwardness out of a very manufactured situation.

Andrew Yang

So we need to do this for people all over the country, but starting here with you all to illustrate the fact that if people get some extra money in their hands, it's going to go to the things that we care about and value. I mean, it's an awesome opportunity for us. So thank you for making it possible. Give me a hug. No problem.

Pam Christiansen

Thank you. Thank you.

Andrew Yang

You guys are very, very welcome.

Ben Calhoun

The next 45 minutes are completely usual and unusual. Yang genuinely asks Pam and Kyle about their situation-- Pam's neuropathy, her treatment. He talks again and again about how much he admires Kyle for taking care of his mom. Kyle talks about the one doctor's appointment he's missed in the last three years. They talk about music, how Kyle quit the metal band he was touring with because he loved performing, but he never had an interest in the drinking and drugs that went with it. They laugh about Yang's flag socks. He talks about picking them out.

Like so little of political campaigning, it's unrushed enough to feel regular. Until it's time to go and the surreal logistics of a political campaign break through this small bubble of normality. Yang has to hit the road.

I feel like this is a weird and particular thing you see when politicians campaign. So many of their interactions are superficial and crassly abbreviated. And then sometimes, like in this room, they'll just drift into a space with some voters that feels intense, and authentic, and personal. And then poof, time to go.

Before Yang's got to leave, though, they have to pose for pictures. They have to pose with the cash, the cash they need, but won't be allowed to keep. After the pictures, they'll hand it back. For now, Yang pulls out this huge wad of twenties. Pam, with some struggle, stands up. And Yang hands each of them a stack.

Staffer

Yeah, can you fan it?

Zach Graumann

Can you guys fan it?

Ben Calhoun

They fan out the money. And then they look for which lens to smile into.

Staffer

There you go.

Pam Christiansen

Split it in half. His pile's bigger than mine.

[LAUGHTER]

Staffer

Not that I'm counting, but--

[CAMERA CLICKING]

Andrew Yang

And one, this is for Instagram.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun. Hey, Ben?

Ben Calhoun

Yeah.

Ira Glass

I see in the poll numbers that he's still stuck at the bottom.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, and I mean, not the bottom, bottom.

Ira Glass

It's so crazy that people aren't voting for this. It reminds me of-- I knew somebody who was an editor at Playboy magazine. Like once the internet hit and Maxim and all those magazines hit, and it was like Playboy was printing pornography, and people wouldn't buy the magazine. And that's what I feel like this is. It's like he's giving away $12,000 to everybody who will vote for him, and people still don't want it.

Ben Calhoun

Uh-huh. The family did say that they are going to caucus for him, if he's still around in January when the caucuses happen.

Dave Weigel

You have a town hall with the moderate guy who wants to beat up Medicare for All, or you have Gillibrand also at 1% with drag queens. So which of those is more interesting?

Zoe Chace

Hi Ira, I'm back.

Ira Glass

Hey there, Zoe Chace.

Zoe Chace

I'm taking you through Iowa with Dave Weigel, the Washington Post reporter.

Ira Glass

I know. I feel like you saw so much more than we heard at the top of the show.

Zoe Chace

It's kind of crazy the way Weigel wants to go to every single candidate event. That's impossible, because there are too many happening at the same time.

Dave Weigel

It's not the hardest decision anyone's ever made. It's like--

Zoe Chace

But there's this intense lesson that I think a lot of the reporters learned from 2016, which is that any candidate can surge.

Ira Glass

Oh, you mean because Trump. Like, they didn't foresee that Trump could be the winner.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, all the things that indicated who'd come out on top-- like think Jeb Bush, right? He was the front runner. He had all the money. None of those things turned out to matter. So this time around, it's like any event can be the beginning of someone's big run. We went to so many events in just two days.

Kirsten Gillibrand

She saved the mommy. She saved the daddy. She saved--

Zoe Chace

Kirsten Gillibrand, she wrote a kid's book. And she's reading it at the Y to just two small children, while a handful of people watch them.

Ira Glass

Wait, the senator wrote a kid's book?

Zoe Chace

Yeah, she wrote a book for kids, but not that many kids showed up to hear it.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Be strong and courageous. Do you know what the word courageous means? Do you know what it means? Courageous means brave. Do you know what the word--

Ira Glass

Oh, wow. What a coincidence. Brave just happens to be the theme of her entire campaign.

Zoe Chace

That's exactly right. We went to an Iowa Democratic Veterans event where Eric Swalwell, a candidate for president, was supposed to be.

Zoe Chace

But can you just tell me what's going on? Is he coming? Where is he?

Joe Stutler

Eric Swalwell? Yeah, his flight was delayed. So staffer made it. He wanted to be here, but delayed flight.

Zoe Chace

Got it.

Joe Stutler

We had that from several of them that had scheduling issues. Like, oh, crap, our flight's been bumped.

Zoe Chace

Thank you.

Joe Stutler

That's the silliness of waiting until the day of to get into a major event, as opposed to flying in a day early and being prepared.

Ira Glass

Oh, he's mad.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, Joe Stutler, secretary of the Iowa Democratic Veterans Caucus. That's a guy you want on your side early on.

Joe Stutler

I used to live on the road. It's like, you get there the day before, if it's important.

Zoe Chace

So you're kind of feeling like maybe this wasn't that important to him?

Joe Stutler

No, no. I just think that they're all trying to do way too much. These are the lessons that we learn, sometimes the hard way.

Zoe Chace

Of course, there are lots of reporters who have covered these kinds of events a million times, who stand around afterwards nerding out about campaign history, which is kind of awesome.

Man 1

After Gene McCarthy finished a decent second event in New Hampshire--

Man 2

Close second to him in New Hampshire, and about to win--

Man 1

And then Bobby got it.

Man 2

And Bobby got it in, and then McCarthy was about to win Wisconsin, because Bobby had not gotten on the ballot, if I remember.

Man 1

Right. Yeah.

Zoe Chace

And also, it's cool to see these guys talking about this moment-- this early moment in the campaign-- in this way, like it might be history later. It might not be, but they're talking about it like it is, like when Weigel and this other reporter were in the back of the room talking about Elizabeth Warren.

Reporter

I remember seeing her at the Sharpton thing.

Dave Weigel

Yeah.

Reporter

The year before.

Dave Weigel

Oh, I was there.

Reporter

Yeah. And remember she had a really [INAUDIBLE] speaking time.

Dave Weigel

I took out the dress. You all know the dress.

Reporter

And everybody went [BLEEP] nuts.

Dave Weigel

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

What was her dress line?

Dave Weigel

So the dress line-- she tells it all the time-- is, when she was a kid-- and she always says, my mama and my daddy, because she's from Oklahoma. But she talks about, I heard my parents in that argument, talking at night after they thought I was asleep. And that's where I learned words like foreclosure and mortgage.

Zoe Chace

Right.

Dave Weigel

And I walked past my mother's room, and I saw her puttering-- going back and forth with a dress laid out. And she goes, y'all know the dress. It's the one you only use for graduations and funerals-- weddings, graduations, and funerals. And she looks at the dress and says, we're not going to lose this house. We're not going to lose this house.

Reporter

She does it like in this-- like she's doing it kind of like--

Dave Weigel

Like a Tennessee Williams character.

Reporter

She's, like--

Dave Weigel

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

And the very next day, I saw her give this speech to a pretty big crowd in a backyard in Waterloo, Iowa. Everybody was just kind of rapt.

Elizabeth Warren

And there was the dress, and there was my mother. She was in her slip and her stocking feet. And she was pacing and crying, just talking to herself and saying, we will not lose this house. We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house.

Zoe Chace

And this one guy was wiping tears away. At this point, Weigel can sort of divide the candidates into two groups. And it's not the moderates and the far left. He says, actually, the voters he talks to are less hung up on the policy questions. What they mainly want is to be able to close their eyes and see this person beating Donald Trump.

Ira Glass

Hm.

Zoe Chace

The two groups he notices are, one, the candidates where people show up at one of their events, and a transformation happens. The voter leaves the event excited, inspired. The other group are the ones where that transformation doesn't happen.

Ira Glass

So who's in the excited group?

Zoe Chace

Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and most of all, Elizabeth Warren.

Ira Glass

Huh.

Zoe Chace

People see her, and they're surprised at how much they like her.

Ira Glass

Huh. And the unexcited group?

Zoe Chace

Basically everyone else, including the front runner, Joe Biden. People would come to see him because they already loved him, and then they would leave feeling no different, or worse.

Ira Glass

Like they want to be inspired, but they weren't inspired.

Zoe Chace

Yeah. Beto-- people went backwards.

Dave Weigel

I have all these memories, which already seem surreal, of Beto O'Rourke coming to somewhere and there being an enormous crowd to see him.

Zoe Chace

Now it's like the crowd is smaller, and people leave underwhelmed.

Ira Glass

And what does he see changing?

Zoe Chace

Since the first debate, at this point, the field is basically sorting itself out.

Dave Weigel

The debates clarify that some people don't have secret candidate charisma powers that are going to reveal themselves at some point. They haven't yet. It might not be happening. So I think that the field probably is going to limit itself more to 16, 17 people soon.

When it comes to me taking people seriously, if at this point you had two fundraising quarters, you're in the teens or the high single digits, and you have enough money to fund 50 staff in Iowa, I think that's more interesting. And that's more important than, hey, there's another guy who's at 0%, and he's meeting at a diner.

Ira Glass

Aw. So the special magical time where it seems like any of the two dozen candidates could rise, that's ending?

Zoe Chace

It is, except there's a dark horse out there still who could shake things up. There is one more move left in this great game of who will run America.

Ira Glass

I know where you're going with this. Yes, on the Republican side, things are still wide open and away. There, it is just the president and so far, one other candidate, former governor Bill Weld. Weld held elective office 20 years ago. He so far has not had much of an impact.

And for our last story, we are joined now by one of our producers, David Kestenbaum. Hey, David.

David Kestenbaum

Hey, Ira.

Ira Glass

So you talked to two Republicans who are doing basically everything they can to find a genuine heavy hitter to run against the President of the United States from within his own party.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, they feel like if the right person were just to enter the race, it could matter more than anything the Democrats are doing.

Ira Glass

Hm.

David Kestenbaum

So here's the scene, an office in Washington, DC.

Sarah Longwell

Hey, Bill? Hey, Carson. Is Bill out there?

David Kestenbaum

That's Sarah Longwell. She's a Republican strategist. The mug in front of her on the desk reads, "These are the tears of my staff." And it's filled with pens. The Bill she is looking for is Bill Kristol, the guy from TV, the one that seems to have an encyclopedic memory of every election in American history. Kristol worked in the first Bush administration, helped start the Weekly Standard magazine.

Sarah Longwell

Oh, you had to stop and get your fancy bougie coffee.

David Kestenbaum

He wanders in and sits down on a small couch. They've just done a poll of voters in New Hampshire, and they're meeting to talk about it.

Sarah Longwell

I mean, look. If I was looking at this thinking about running for the Republican nomination--

Bill Kristol

You should do that. I say this all the time.

Sarah Longwell

Yeah, right.

Bill Kristol

We have all these other people we're talking to-- congressmen, and ex-senators, and all these big shots.

Sarah Longwell

This is his great pitch, that I should run. We are really in dire straits, if that's where we're at now.

Bill Kristol

Totally wrong.

David Kestenbaum

I think if you were taking on a standing president from within your own party, there are kind of two paths. You can do it quietly, out of view, or you can do it the way Kristol has-- by never shutting up about it on television and newspaper articles. He recently tweeted that he'd been accused of being in a secret cabal to find a challenger to Trump. His answer-- there's nothing secret about it.

Kristol and Longwell have raised a few million dollars in the past two years. And they've been using it to try and see, is this thing even possible? The whole idea of running against Trump in the primary can seem a little crazy. He has like an 80% or 90% approval rating from Republicans. But they feel like it is not crazy at all. In that poll they just had done of Republicans in New Hampshire and independents who might vote in the Republican primary, half were open to voting for a challenger. Half.

Sarah Longwell

No, I mean, I was just up in Manchester, and I did a series of focus groups. If you ask them specifically, hey, would you be open to an alternative in 2020? Would you like to see another Republican candidate? Every single time, nine out of the 10 hands go up. I think for some people, there's a hunger for an alternative. And then for other people, it's just an openness, like a willingness for political competition.

David Kestenbaum

One thing that really surprises people in these focus groups, she says, is when you explain just how much the debt has gone up under Trump. It's increased more during the first two years of Trump than it did the previous two years under Obama.

Bill Kristol lays out how this all might go for a challenger. You raise a little money, go to Iowa, New Hampshire. Maybe you get 30% of the vote in New Hampshire. That is a serious blow to the president. You're off and running. So that's their case.

There is one kind of noticeable challenge to this plan. Since we've had the current primary system, there are zero examples-- zero-- of someone challenging a sitting president in a primary and actually winning.

David Kestenbaum

I mean, is some part of this just kind of like theater? And I mean theater you truly believe in?

Bill Kristol

I mean, I don't want to say yes because of course-- because that really isn't. I don't think of it that way. I'm not a very theatrical person. But I guess theater in the sense that presidential politics is the biggest stage we have in politics. And the presidential contest is the biggest stage. And I don't want to simply leave that stage on the Republican side alone to Donald Trump.

David Kestenbaum

I'm still trying to think through just, like in your mind, why you're doing this. And is part of it just like a feeling like what is democracy for, if I can't cast a vote for the person I really want to be in office?

Bill Kristol

Yeah, I think it's actually people are overthinking this. I mean, I'm doing it because I don't think Trump should have a second term. I'm a Republican. It'd be a heck of a thing to say, OK, you think he's really leading the country down a terrible path, and you should just take two or four or six years off.

David Kestenbaum

But you're really unlikely to succeed, right?

Bill Kristol

Pretty unlikely to succeed, yeah.

David Kestenbaum

So why do it?

Bill Kristol

Look. The last three presidents were not primaried, and they won re-election.

David Kestenbaum

And here, Bill offered up what seems to be the other math that candidates are doing. The last three presidents did not have a primary challenge, and they won re-election. When a sitting president has been challenged by his own party, like Carter by Kennedy, Ford by Reagan, Bush by Buchanan, the challenger doesn't win. But maybe because they damaged the president, he does not win re-election. In other words, this may be the bargain. You can run for president, possibly shape history, end Trump, change who wins, but you don't get to win.

David Kestenbaum

I mean, it's interesting. The other Republicans I talked to pointed out that history is not on your side. And you were pointing out, oh, it is on my side, in the sense that a sitting president challenged tends to lose. But that means what you're doing is just an act of internal sabotage.

Bill Kristol

No, but I think it's also holding out an alternative in a good way. But yeah--

David Kestenbaum

Or sabotage. I mean--

Bill Kristol

Well, people can say that. They said that about the French who didn't go along with Vichy. I mean, what are you supposed to do? If you think it's bad--

David Kestenbaum

I love that every time I have a point that's historical--

Bill Kristol

If you think it's bad for the country, they can say it's sabotage. I would say it's opposition. I don't think it's sabotage. Sabotage implies secrecy and deception. I don't think there's a heck of a lot of secrecy and deception in what I'm doing. I think I've been pretty open about my opposition, so I feel like I'm-- isn't that the point of America?

Honestly, if I were a Democrat, I would call me up and say, here's a lot of money for a primary challenge-- and we have talked to a lot of Democrats about this, obviously-- against Donald Trump. I mean, that's actually the single best thing you can do to weaken Trump. You can help Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker right now. But we don't know which of those will actually be a good nominee against Trump. The one thing you do know is if Trump has to spend money against the primary challenger, if he loses 32% of the vote in New Hampshire, which is entirely possible, and it's embarrassing, it would be helpful to weaken Trump.

David Kestenbaum

Wait, but is your goal to run somebody who's going to win the nomination and maybe the presidency? Or is your goal just to take down Trump?

Bill Kristol

Both. Obviously, the first would be the best. But I would regard the second as an adequate result, and I think actually an important result, if I can say.

David Kestenbaum

Sarah Longwell has been weighing all this, too. It's possible the whole thing could backfire if the wrong Democrat ended up in the White House.

Sarah Longwell

I certainly would not want Bernie Sanders to be the President of the United States.

David Kestenbaum

So if you ended up handing it to Sanders, that would not be a happy day for you.

Sarah Longwell

Well, that's sort of like, do I want to be poisoned, or do I want to be shot? Those are just sort of bad choices. And I think America deserves better than to have choices between an old socialist and sort of an authoritarian sort of nativist. My choice is neither.

David Kestenbaum

There's this scene in the HBO series on Chernobyl that's running right now where the nuclear reactor is about to explode. So these workers have to go into the basement of the power plant to try to open a valve. There's so much radiation, it seems certain they're going to die, but it will also save everyone else.

Sarah has been watching the show. I asked her if she ever thought about it like that. No, she said. Never. They're not asking someone to risk their life, they're asking someone to put their name in the hat to be the next president of the United States. Apparently, it's easier to get someone to walk into Chernobyl.

[MUSIC - STEVE FORBERT, "YOU CANNOT WIN IF YOU DO NOT PLAY"]

Our program was produced today by Zoe Chace and myself. People who put our show together today includes Bim Adewunmi, Emanuele Berry, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Aviva DeKornfeld, Neil Drumming, Damien Gray, Michelle Harris, Jessica Lussenhop, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Ben Phelan, Catherine Raimondo, Nadia Reiman, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Nancy Updike. Our managing editor is Diane Wheeler. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks to David [INAUDIBLE], [? Chris ?] [? Coons, ?] [? Scott ?] [INAUDIBLE], [? John ?] [? Harwood, ?] [? Harry ?] [INAUDIBLE], [? Walter ?] [? Shapiro, ?] [? Ben ?] [? Tourist, ?] the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, [? Jamie ?] [? Harrison, ?] [? Andrea ?] [? Gillespie, ?] [? Josh ?] [INAUDIBLE], [? Angela ?] [? Davidson, ?] and [? Jay ?] [? A. ?] [? Moore. ?]

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 670 episodes. Also, there's videos and tons of other stuff there-- thisamericanlife.org.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he organized a vote this week about what we should have for lunch as a staff. I don't know. He seemed a little too proud of himself.

Cory Booker

This is what democracy looks like!

Crowd

This is what democracy looks like!

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS, "EVEN THE LOSERS"]