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The Late-Week Mop-Up With Alice Stewart
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The Late-Week Mop-Up With Alice Stewart

A campaign veteran turned pundit goes down to Georgia.

In my quest to bring y’all interviews from people throughout the campaign universe, it struck me that we have missed the most obvious—the people the public see and hear from the most. The pundits! 

Of course, not all political pundits are created equal. It annoys me to no end to see people pontificating about races who have never worked on a campaign. Political punditry is a lot like football. Yes, you can watch a ton of Monday Night Football and be a great couch commentator, but if you’ve never been in the locker room, there’s just some stuff you are going to miss. And the playbooks fundamentally change over time. Some of the most common formations from 20 years ago just aren’t used today (wishbone offense, anyone?). So you want to hear from someone who was in the game recently, too.

And that brings us to Alice Stewart. She’s a triple threat. She’s been the communications director on a lot of presidential campaigns: Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann. And now she’s a CNN political commentator, NPR contributor, fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and co-host of the “Hot Mics from Left to Right” Podcast with Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. Plus she is unfailingly kind—a quality that is too rare in this field because it is often seen as a weakness, but which Alice taught me can be one of your greatest strengths.

Let’s dive in!

Sarah: Okay, so Charlie Daniels told me the Devil Went Down to Georgia, but I understand you did too? You’re on a bus right now? Whatcha doing?

Alice: Charlie told you right! The Devil is here in Georgia, along with busloads of campaign staffers, surrogates, volunteers, special interest groups. You name it—they are here. I’m doing consulting with Concerned Women for America, which is traveling the Peach State in a large pink bus to rally pro-life women to vote for the conservative candidates in the big U.S. Senate runoff elections on January 5. We just left a very cold—but fiery—outdoor rally in Macon, where Vice President Pence just spoke. Aside from near frostbite on my toes, it was a great event.

Sarah: I hope you’re calling yourselves the Pink Ladies! Okay, but backing up for a second. First race, favorite race? 

Alice: Sarah, I’ve been blessed to work on the presidential campaigns for some great people, and they were all great for different reasons. Gov. Huckabee’s run in 2008 was exciting because he fought so hard with so little money, and he showed that hard work, determination, and a genuine good nature goes a long way in politics. Sen. Rick Santorum fought a similar race in 2012 and made sweater vests cool again. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann never played the “I am woman” card; rather, she held her own on the stage with the men based on her intelligence and convictions. And Sen. Ted Cruz took on President Donald Trump like no other candidate. Ted was a fantastic debater, and it was amazing to see him process information and make his case.

Sarah: Speaking of Sen. Cruz, you were his communications director on the 2016 race. As you may remember, he lost. And from there you transitioned basically into full time punditry and surrogate work—CNN, NPR, etc. Can you explain to people what that means, what your day looks like, how much you prepare what you’re going to say in advance? 

Alice: Wait, what? Ted Cruz lost? Just kidding—the good part of the Cruz campaign was working with you when he brought on Carly Fiorina as his VP running mate. 

As a political commentator, I try to always be up on the news of the day because while many panels are planned in advance, there are times I get called on short notice, and I don’t ever want to be behind the curve on the issues. I try to dedicate an hour or so to researching the topic before each segment. Plus, I’m kind of a news junkie, so that helps. 

Sarah: Do you ever feel constrained about what you can say—either because it’s not the “party line” as a Republican or because you think that the people having you on expect you to play a certain role? Like “Oh, CNN wants me to debate the Democratic strategist, so I need to disagree with her” even if you kinda, sorta think she has a point?

Alice: That’s a good question. While I am a strong Republican, I throw flags on both sides and swim in the commonsense lane. This means that I support Republican policies, but don’t support bad behavior. I voted for President Trump and agree with his policies, but often voiced my concern about some of the things he did. Conversely, whenever a Democrat does something commendable, I always give them credit. CNN is very respectful of my position and would never expect me to say anything that was not genuine. 

Sarah: Do you communicate with campaigns? Pollsters? Where do you get your info before you go on?

Alice: I get information from all over the place. You know the drill: Campaigns and administrations put out great information, but I always double check the facts. I also talk to people at the party level and members of Congress who can give me a sense of what they are hearing from their constituents. It’s usually a different picture than what we see in D.C. I rarely look at one poll at a time. I look at the trends over time, which shows which way the momentum is going. That tends to be more telling than a snapshot in time. 

Sarah: You’ve prepared presidential candidates for debates, TV, all sorts of media. Not to mention you do it for a living. What are your top three tips for folks before they go on TV? 

Alice: One, have a takeaway line. Short and pointed sound bites will make headlines over a long-winded answer. Recent case in point: Sen. Kelly Loeffler called Rev. Raphael Warnock “Radical Liberal Raphael Warnock” about a dozen times in the last Georgia Senate debate, and it got most of the headlines after the debate. 

Two, know your fellow cast members. When you are on a debate stage, educate yourself on the other candidates, and on a TV panel, know the background and vantage point of the other panelists and host.

Three, do your homework. A fiery debate can fall apart quickly if you don’t know what you are talking about. Do research from various sources to get a full understanding of the topic. 

Sarah: You were a journalist when you started out your career. Journalists aren’t as trusted as they used to be, obviously—do you think this trend can turn itself around? Or are we as Americans just destined to silo ourselves further and further into only trusting the news we agree with?

Alice: I do believe most journalists strive to be fair and balanced. Many solid journalists get painted by a broad brush of “fake news,” and that’s not fair. That being said, there is a disturbing trend of some outlets putting their finger on the scale. I am not certain that people’s trust in the news will change much anytime soon. Many people are fine with their own echo chamber of news sources and don’t plan to change.

Sarah: So you’re on a bus tour. We’ve all been there. It’s a lot of riding around on a bus thinking about what’s for lunch and how long you have to wait until lunch. In April 2016, I memorized the entire Hamilton soundtrack. What are you doing to keep yourself entertained right now?

Alice: Wow, I’m very impressed with you memorizing Hamilton. You’ll have to show me sometime. Aside from finishing off a tub of Twizzlers each day, my niece Katie is my intern this week, and she’s teaching me to memorize the presidents from Washington to Trump. You can quiz me later. 

Sarah: Oh, I definitely will. Thanks, Alice. Best of luck on the pink bus.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.