You would be forgiven for mistaking Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio for Seth Moulton, the 40-year-old representative from Massachusetts who is also running for president, and who joined Ryan in a leadership challenge to Nancy Pelosi back in 2016. You might also be excused for confusing him with Eric Swalwell, a similarly aged congressman from California turned presidential candidate. Or, if you squint, maybe even John Delaney, an older, significantly wealthier former congressional backbencher from Maryland, who is also—you guessed it!—running for president.
But Ryan is, as they say, his own person. He’s got his own set of campaign priorities and a particular vision for the country that he’s intent on communicating to the American public at the first Democratic-primary debate on Wednesday night. The question is: How does a politician who has never participated in this kind of high-profile event, and whose apportioned time in the national spotlight will likely add up to no more than a few scattered minutes, plan to stand out in the comically large—and somehow still growing—field of presidential hopefuls?
I asked Ryan this question on Tuesday morning. His response was simple: He plans to use his allotted speaking time to introduce himself to voters. After all, he’s not polling well. In most national polls, he’s not even clearing 1 percent, and about 64 percent of voters say they haven’t heard of him, or have no opinion about him, according to the latest Morning Consult survey data. “I want to make sure people walk away [from watching the debates] with the fact they know my sole goal is to become president to rebuild the middle class and help the working poor,” Ryan said, adding that he’ll talk about “who I am, where I come from, and the fact that I’ve been representing these forgotten communities in the country for a while.”
Ryan, who is probably best known for his two failed attempts to overthrow Pelosi as the leader of the House Democrats, represents Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, which stretches from Youngstown to Akron and where roughly 45,000 people simultaneously voted for him and Donald Trump in 2016. Ryan has styled himself as a champion of blue-collar Americans—but is also, notably, a meditation evangelist and a faithful practitioner of hot yoga. He is, as I wrote earlier this year, a man containing multitudes.
But he probably won’t get a chance to reveal those multitudes. Joining Ryan on the debate stage in Miami will be nine other presidential wannabes: Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, John Delaney, and Bill de Blasio. (Ten other candidates will face off on Thursday, including the heavyweights Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.)
The debate will last two hours, but realistically, all the candidates will have just a couple of minutes to pitch themselves to voters and say something memorable. And with the focus of the debate expected to be on Warren, who is currently polling highest in the group, “the rest of us will be left fighting for scraps,” Michael Zetts, a campaign aide to Ryan, told me.
Ryan’s team has him running through binders of talking points and statistics, and rehearsing concise answers for questions on every conceivable debate topic, from Iran to abortion. But ultimately, Team Ryan thinks it’ll be better to emphasize biography over policy. “It’s more soft things than hard for a guy like him,” Zetts said. Expect the Democrat to talk about his working-class upbringing in Niles, Ohio, and his experiences representing Youngstown, a hotbed of voters who switched allegiance from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016. “I want people around the country to really see me as someone who can lead this worker-centered movement taking over the party,” Ryan said. “[I can] really build that coalition of white, black, and brown workers.”
Ryan believes that he doesn’t necessarily need to wow voters, but just leave them with a good impression. “It’s a correct move,” says David Birdsell, the dean of the Baruch College Marxe School of Public and International Affairs and an expert on political debate. And if he does it right, the American people “should recognize the name Tim Ryan coming out of the debate,” Birdsell told me.
The debate setup may actually end up working in Ryan’s favor. The fact that he’s appearing on the first night, when the star power will be dimmer, could give Ryan more of a chance to shine, says Alan Schroeder, a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University and the author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail. But Ryan has something else working against him—he’s positioned near the edge of the stage (second from left, next to de Blasio). According to Schroeder, debaters farther away from the center typically get less time in front of the cameras.
One tip Schroeder has for Ryan: Flail. “This sounds kind of silly, but you want to get in the camera shots as much as you can … Use more body language [and] lean in a little bit,” he says. “A little movement attracts a lot of attention.”
A little-known candidate such as Ryan must also demonstrate “passion” and “authenticity,” says Mel Carson, a personal-branding expert and the founder and CEO of Delightful Communications, a marketing and digital-PR firm. Carson acknowledges that the advice is somewhat vague, but says that Ryan simply needs to channel the enthusiasm he has in the video currently pinned to his Twitter profile, in which the congressman scolds General Motors for halting production at a plant in his district. Basically, Carson says—apparently unaware that he is quoting a signature line from The Bachelor—Ryan needs to show that he’s “doing this for all the right reasons.”
There are, of course, a few things the experts would advise a candidate such as Ryan not to say. First, he shouldn’t mention his attempts to overthrow Pelosi. “Reminding people he did that positions him as a bit of a loser, or somebody who’s getting ahead of his skis a little bit,” Schroeder explains. And unlike some past presidential candidates, he adds, Ryan shouldn’t whine if he doesn’t get asked many questions. “The first thing they do is spend 30 seconds complaining that they weren’t called on earlier,” Schroeder told me. “Accept your lot and go with it.”
There is at least one topic, however, on which the experts disagree: whether Ryan, the avid hot-yoga-doer, should mention his sweaty hobby.
“I wouldn’t,” Carson says.
“It’s going to be really hard to get there and very easy for other candidates to pillory that,” Birdsell said with a chuckle.
But Schroeder says yes, absolutely; Ryan should talk about it: “That’s an interesting aspect of his personality. I’m going to remember him now as the yoga guy.”
How Ryan uses his precious few minutes—addressing the working-class Americans in flyover country, waving his arms in front of the cameras for attention—could make or break his performance. But this is only the first of 12—12!—Democratic-primary debates, so while the stakes are high, none of the lesser-known candidates has that much to lose, the experts told me. “You don’t want to create a gaffe that gets you well known as a failure,” Birdsell said. But “barring the most destructive self-immolation,” everyone should have time to recuperate before the next debate.
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