American Candidate

The producer of a new political reality show talks about politics, TV, and getting people engaged in the process.

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Filmmaker R.J. Cutler’s first project was the 1993 documentary “The War Room,” which went behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s campaign and showed how strategists like James Carville, Paul Begala, and George Stephanopolous crafted Clinton’s rise.

Cutler returns to the political arena as the producer of “American Candidate,” a political “reality show,” which airs Sunday nights on Showtime starting Aug. 1.

The show features ten candidates — six men and four women of various ages, backgrounds and political views, including Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Greens and Libertarians. (They include Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), James Strock, a businessman and author, and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender activist Chrissy Gephardt, who happens to be Dick Gephardt’s daughter.) “Week by week,” reads a blurb for the show, “candidates will face-off against each other in a series of challenges designed to identify one individual who has the qualities to be President of the United States.” Political consultants advise the ten on such arts as message-shaping, polling, and ad creation. Each week a candidate gets voted off the show; the last man or woman standing at season’s end is the winner.

“There is a fundamental notion at the core of American identity,” Cutler explains, “that in this country any little boy or girl can grow up to be president.” He talked with about how his show explores that notion, and how, he hopes, it will spark people’s interest in politics. How did you come up with the idea for “American Candidate”?

R.J. Cutler: This is an idea that evolved over a number of years. It began in the wake of the 2000 presidential election. I was approached by Jay Roach and Tom Lassally, who are my executive producing partners on the project, and we were talking about doing something that would respond to the fact that in that all-too-critical election year, only 50 percent of eligible voters actually bothered to show up at the polls. And only 50 percent of eligible registrants had bothered to register, meaning that only one in four qualified U.S. citizens actually voted in the election. As we all know, this was an election where every vote counted, and it was an election that changed the world and changed American history. And yet, only 25 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls.

We started talking about why that might be and how we might do a show that would respond to that thematically, but also might simultaneously help to stimulate voter participation and engage people in the process. Eventually over time, this was the idea that evolved. One of the questions we asked was, are people not showing up because they’re not inspired by the options they have? Do they feel like it’s same-old-same-old? Do they think to themselves, “So what if I vote for one rich guy from Harvard or Yale whose daddy was president or a senator, or another rich guy from Harvard or Yale whose daddy was a senator or a president? What’s the difference?” Now we all know there’s an enormous difference — the world would be a different place if George Bush hadn’t been elected president. I’m not saying it necessarily would have been a better place or a worse place, what I’m saying is it would be a vastly different place. And for those who think it would have been a better place, the fact that three quarters of America didn’t bother to vote is a big deal. Why the reality show format instead of another “War Room” type documentary?

RC: Two reasons. First, the sandbox I’m playing in these days is reality television. It’s what I’ve been working in for the last few years, and I’m always looking for a new form or way to express myself. Perhaps more importantly, I felt the reality genre really lent itself to an exploration of politics. Reality television has borrowed so much from the world of politics, whether it’s alliances or voting or the kind of strategizing that’s done. Anything like that came from politics well before it came from reality television. So it seemed like a very good match. How did applicants apply to take part in the show, and how did you arrive at the final group?

RC: We opened up the application process to anybody who was a citizen of eligible voting age. Over 20,000 people downloaded applications. The application process required you to fill out a 45-page application and to do about a half-hour videotape. It was designed to be self-selecting, so that those who really wanted to do this and were really committed would actually apply, and about 1,500 people did. Our goal was to put together a group that was as diverse as possible. We defined diversity in terms of age, gender, sexual orientation, ideological background, geographic background, socio-economic background, and a number of other things. We tried to put together a group that would offer an alternative in terms of those diversity objectives to the traditional 50-something, Harvard- or Yale-educated, ultra-wealthy white male.

Ideologically, what makes them ideal is they represent a broad cross-section of political viewpoints. They range in age from 26-55. Forty percent of them are women. In a country where the voting population is over 50 percent women, to get close to 50 percent of women in your candidate pool is a great thing. Twenty percent are African-American; 20 percent are gay. So there are a number of reasons why this group works really well. And most importantly, the group works really well because they’re extraordinary people of vision, passion and talent, who really have what it takes to emerge as important leaders in this country. I don’t mean to pretend that any one of them is ready to waltz on in to the White House, but I am certain that every one of them will be able to return to their communities and use this show as a platform to launch their political careers. What type of campaign activities do the candidates go through during the course of the show?

RC: The show, by and large, follows the structure of a real presidential campaign. So it begins in retail politics, it moves on through image and message management, and finally into wholesale politics where large-scale events address the entire nation. The candidates began in their hometowns, where they had to announce their candidacies. They then went up to New Hampshire, and then traveled around to other small towns during the retail part of the campaign. The challenges were oriented around pressing the flesh, dealing with the local press, making their announcement speeches, holding a rally, speaking at a press conference, speaking at a town hall meeting, getting out the vote and things like that. When we shifted to image and message management, the challenges included dealing with focus groups, making advertisements, managing their image and making choices about that — and making the difficult decisions related to whether or not they wanted to modify their message or their image in order to broaden their appeal. Some of them felt that was a compromise they were unwilling to make, while others felt it was one they were willing to make. At the end of the series, we get into larger events and the entire viewing public will have the opportunity to vote for the candidates. And one candidate gets voted out each week?

RC: Basically, there is a challenge each week that requires the candidates to solicit votes from members of the public. In some places, that was a telephone vote. In some places, it was a paper ballot; in some it was a focus-group vote. But the challenge was always voter-based. The winner of the challenge in each episode becomes the front-runner and the two bottom vote-getters in each week’s episode face off against each other in an elimination debate. The debate is moderated by the show’s host, Montel Williams, but the decision as to who will stay on and who is off the ballot is made by the remaining candidates. So when there were 10 candidates, two of them faced off in the elimination debate, and the remaining eight decided who stayed and who left. You’re using professional political consultants on the show. What role do they play?

RC: We were blessed in that a cavalcade of political stars agreed to support the project and participate in it. People from both sides of the aisle — Carter Eskew, Joe Trippi, Frank Luntz, Ed Rollins, Rich Bond, Bay Buchanan. A whole host of extremely experienced political consultants got on board. In each episode, one of them was featured. Part of the advantage of being the front-runner is you receive the support — the exclusive support, for a large part of the episode — of the political consultant. Why did you time the show to coincide with the presidential election season?

RC: We anticipated that the show would serve to introduce these candidates to the American public during a time period where political awareness is at its height, and where an openness to campaigning and political issues is at its height. This is an ideal time to be doing a show like this because the public receptiveness to politically themed storytelling is at its quadrennial peak. So I feel this is the perfect time to achieve our goal, which is the introduction of ten extraordinary men and women to the American public. The candidates people are a departure from the type of candidates we normally see. How has television influenced the kind of candidates who run for the presidency?

RC: That I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if it is the most significant contributor to the kind of candidate we have running, or if it’s the way money and politics works — certainly there’s a relationship between the way money in politics works and the cost of television advertising. I don’t know if it has to do with media scrutiny and some people just don’t want to bother anymore. It has, throughout American history, taken a very particular kind of person to even want to run for president. It has never been something that every person of excellence and talent and vision has wanted to do. There have always been enormous costs associated with it. The presidency made John Adams an old man long before there was television. As early as the nation’s first contested presidential election, with Adams and Jefferson running to succeed Washington, you had a brutal, ugly, vicious campaign that was divisive and as partisan as anything we’re experiencing today. So it’s hard to say necessarily that television or modern media is the cause of that. What is it about campaign politics that makes for compelling television?

RC: It’s just great drama. The quest for power, the yearning for and fight over power. It’s a compelling drama in the hands of CNN reporting on Election Night 2000, and it’s compelling drama in the hands of William Shakespeare writing “Henry IV, Part 2.” What do you hope “American Candidate” will accomplish?

RC: Most of all, we’re looking to tell compelling stories that are entertaining and engaging and dramatic and provocative. Certainly, we’re hoping that pulling the curtain back on the process a little bit and showing the way the sausage is made in presidential campaigns will help to educate the voting public and to engage them a little bit more in the process. And to help them understand more about what they’re looking at when they see the major party candidates actually engaging in their own presidential campaign.


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