The national magazine features on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke began well over a year ago. Rolling Stone called him “Ted Cruz’s Punk Rock Problem.” Earlier this year, the BBC declared O’Rourke’s race against Ted Cruz “the place that tells you everything about U.S. politics.” O’Rourke has visited the late-night couches, the Pod Save America boys, and received the coveted nod from Ellen DeGeneres, all while also criss-crossing the state in his long-shot bid to be the first elected Democratic Senator from Texas since Lloyd Bentsen won his third term in 1988. He had gone viral well beyond the borders of the Lone Star State–and then he went viral with his answer on kneeling NFL players.
And Ted Cruz? He had a cool role helping to foster the Republican Senators’ apology tour to Judge Kavanaugh during our National Moment a couple of weeks ago.
Ted Cruz, John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham are conferring after the first part of Kavanaugh’s testimony. pic.twitter.com/drTAmpr80n
— Rachel Cohrs (@rachelcohrs) September 27, 2018
As the U.S. lurches from one drama to the next, the Texas Senate race has taken on a larger-than-life role in the conversation around the 2018 midterm elections. (Quick: Who are the Democratic challengers in the two Mississippi Senate races? Exactly.)
But what does that actually mean? A new podcast launching this week aims to use narrative nonfiction storytelling to find that out over the final weeks of the campaign. Underdog is a new partnership between Texas Monthly and podcast company Pineapple Street Media (producer of Still Processing in conjunction with the New York Times and Stay Tuned with Preet, in partnership with WNYC).
“[O’Rourke’s] fight with Ted Cruz is increasingly a stand-in for a bigger struggle about the heart of America,” says Nick Quah, noted podcast analyst and founder of Hot Pod Media. “I know [O’Rourke] said otherwise, but he’s probably a viable 2020 [presidential] contender for the Democrats [if he wins]. I’d listen the crap out of a Beto-Cruz podcast.”
As the title suggests, the context is around O’Rourke’s unlikely popularity and momentum in a state known for both its one-party allegiance and low voter turnout. Pineapple Street executive editor Joel Lovell says the goal is to combine magazine feature-style narrative–compelling characters, intrigue, colorful scenes–with the intimacy of podcast audio.
“The magazine equivalent would be, there’s this race in Texas with two absolutely opposite candidates, and the central question is: Can this one guy, an improbable character in Texas politics given its history, possibly win?” says Lovell.
The pod is hosted by Texas Monthly senior editor Eric Benson, who has covered O’Rourke’s campaign extensively for the magazine, and came out of a lunch meeting between Benson and Lovell at SXSW back in March. Lovell and his colleagues at Pineapple Street had been thinking about more creative ways that a podcast could cover politics. In 2016, the company produced “With Her,” a pod chronicling Hilary Clinton’s presidential run, but that was a paid partnership. An elaborate political ad.
This new idea is old-fashioned journalism, and Lovell and Benson are at pains to show this isn’t “With Beto.”
“We really failed if you listen to this show and it feels like we’re working for the Beto O’Rourke campaign,” says Lovell. “We haven’t done our jobs if that happens.”
— Eric Benson (@elbenson) September 27, 2018
Benson says he’s more interested in some of the bigger questions around this campaign, like where Texas is politically right now, whether O’Rourke is able to animate this very different electorate in Texas, and what that looks like on the ground.
“Texas has one of the, if not the worst, records of voter turnout in the country,” says Benson. “The Latino population of Texas is vast, and has even lower turnout numbers. You can see these things, or look at the stats, and say it’s going to be incredibly difficult for him to win. What we can do is go out and see how it looks.”
The podcast’s third episode is set in the Rio Grande Valley, which has some of the poorest voter participation of anywhere in the country, is up to 90% Hispanic, and a border region of more than a million people. “It sits at this nexus of trade and immigration, it’s just a fascinating place,” says Benson. “The question is, how can you get people there to vote? That’s a question I’m very interested in, and the history behind it. And how Beto is working to change it, and what are the odds he can?”
Coming tomorrow from @texasmonthly + @pineapplemedia, a new show on the wild senate race in Texas, where a Democrat hasn't won since '94. We're behind the scenes with Beto's campaign and talking to voters across the state. Hosted by @elbenson, episodes weekly through Election Day pic.twitter.com/zZTixOttyG
— max linsky (@maxlinsky) October 11, 2018
Political podcasts have exploded in popularity over the last few years, with hits like Pod Save America, The Ben Shapiro Show, FiveThirtyEight Politics, Louder with Crowder, Slate’s Political Gabfest, and Vox’s The Weeds, among others. Teddy Goff, cofounder of the consulting firm Precision Strategies and President Barack Obama’s former digital director, says that since podcast discovery is primarily reliant on the listener’s initiative, unlike a TV or digital ad, it’s more likely to be more effective as a mobilization tool rather than a persuasion one.
“The folks who wind up listening to this are going to be those who are actively looking for long-form Beto content,” says Goff. “Which is to say, likely a pretty supportive audience who might be inspired by this podcast to donate more, volunteer more, talk to more friends about the campaign–all worthy goals!–rather than a mostly undecided audience who might be persuaded by it.”
While O’Rourke’s national stature has undoubtedly helped his campaign (especially as he’s sought to avoid contributions from political action committees), it’s also created an opportunity for Cruz to criticize all of his opponent’s coastal appeal in a state whose legendary anti-littering ad campaign Don’t Mess With Texas has come to symbolize its historic wariness about outsiders. The people at Brooklyn, New York-based Pineapple Street know this, and that’s why Benson and Texas Monthly are at the editorial controls.
Benson echoes the idea that this race embodies many of the issues facing the U.S. overall, something O’Rourke has also mentioned frequently. “The subject of it is really, what is Texas right now?” says Benson. “People are asking that about America, but that question is even more distilled in Texas right now.”