January 13, 2016

Washington, D.C. is full of losers.

Think about it: For every elected official on Capitol Hill, there’s one (or sometimes more) candidate who went down in defeat and is now slumming it as a lobbyist, working as a political consultant or grinding it out on the public speaker circuit. When the last ballot is counted and a victor is crowned, the media moves on to cover the winner’s term in office, leaving the loser alone to slink away from public life.

Sam Stein, The Huffington Post’s senior politics editor, thinks that’s a shame. Because the losers, powerless though they are, have all the best stories.

“They’re the most emotional stories of the presidential contest and probably the most open characters,” Stein said. “I would say they’re probably the most relatable people, as well — because everyone loses in life.”

For listeners seeking a candid glimpse at the rough-and-tumble business of elections, who could be a better guide than the politicos who’ve been through the ringer and came out the other side? That’s the question that inspired “Candidate Confessional,” a new podcast from HuffPost Politics that features the have-nots of Washington: people like former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. Billed as a series of discussions about “the human drama and agony” of seeking office, the podcast aims to serve up cathartic conversations that sound as if they came straight from the therapists’ couch.

It also represents a break from the way politics is typically chronicled in Washington. Along with elected office, the winning politician also inherits a gaggle of reporters that scrutinizes his or her every move. This is not without merit, of course; on election night, officials gain power that should be monitored closely by the press. But the media’s obsession with winners means some stories that don’t fit into a campaign tell-all book go untold.

So far, the interviews have yielded some revealing moments, Stein said. In the dozen or so conversations already recorded, Stein and HuffPost’s Jason Cherkis have heard from politicians who’ve been booed and heckled; who’ve endured adversity because of their race; who’ve gone through four outfits per day on the campaign trail. During her interview, Davis discussed how the press dissected her down-but-not-out story of a single mother made good.

The candor is one of the upsides to interviewing election losers, Stein said. Because the former candidates don’t have their eyes on re-election, they feel liberated to talk about uncomfortable topics might make a sitting official balk. They’re even transparent about their opacity. One interviewee, former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, discussed cycling through seven variations of the same answer in his head and analyzing their possible implications before opening his mouth.

“When you are removed from elected office you don’t feel like you have to hold back as much,” Stein said. “I’ve interviewed people who are currently in elected office who are thinking about the next election. And you can see the gears in the back of their head that are turning as they’re trying to think of the right thing to say.”

Although many of the interviews feature former candidates for high-profile offices, Stein and Cherkis also plan to air conversations with ex-candidates in less prominent races. Most of these interviewees were selected because their contests were culturally significant or contained elements that made them particularly interesting, like Karl Kassel’s four vote loss to incumbent Mike Kelly for a seat in the Alaska statehouse.

So far, “Candidate Confessional” has been focused on politics, although Stein says they plan to feature some interviewees who don’t fit that mold. By way of example, he cited an interview with a man who participated in Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest for 17 years without winning. The only thing all the interviewees have in common: They’re all losers (of a sort).

For Stein, the conversations are a reminder that, beneath the veneer of talking points and applause lines, politicians are people. It can be tempting to write a quick and unforgiving story about a candidate’s latest gaffe, but Stein says he might be less likely to file pitiless copy now that he’s gotten a firsthand look at the emotional weight those stories carry.

“Especially with the Internet, there’s this very acute pressure to do things quickly — to point out things that are critical of someone,” Stein said. “And maybe the instinct isn’t always to sit back and tell stories or go deep on a person. And I’m hoping that this experience allows me to recognize that.”

HuffPost Politics is doing a Facebook chat with Howard Dean to promote the first episode of “Candidate Confessions.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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