Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mechanics of a Campaign

Washington, D.C. – Today and thru Saturday, all eyes focused on the neighbor to the South. Because no matter where you are, it’s impossible not to follow the Presidential primary saga. Iowa and New Hampshire, yes – but the big noise is all South Carolina. It’s all politics, all the time.

Having been involved in this crazy game for too many years, I understand that we all tend to focus on the big media picture – who’s up, who’s down, what ads are running, what someone said at debate, or in a Main Street diner. A stream of candidate events crammed into days and weeks and months.

However, there’s a story you rarely hear about – it’s what I’d call the mechanics of a campaign. That is, how does just one event – let’s say a speech in a community center – actually come together?

The “how” is one of the few things I really know -- only because once I was one of those guys on the ground, who came to set up an event for a Candidate, and left right after – to go set up another event.

It works like this:

Long ago and faraway just three years ago, I was part of a team setting up events for a presidential candidate in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Now, an event starts with five campaign operatives who come from the four points of the compass to a city which none of them have ever been in. The schedulers at Headquarters envision the Candidate in that city in 36 hours, speaking before 4,000 hysterical followers who are going to push him/her over the top in that city, in that region, in that state! The rally will build enthusiasm and show the state and national media that the Candidate is making it happen.

This takes place in Marietta, Ohio. The five guys meet in an airport lounge, jump in a rental car, and drive around looking at possible arenas – indoor or outdoor? Is the place too big, which would look bad to have empty space, or two small, which shows that the Candidate fears big crowds? A site is quickly chosen, local vendors are hired to build a stage with lighting and music affects. County political party chairman are rounded up so they can find enough volunteers to pack a 4,000-person college field house. , one of our guys heads to the local FedEx store to design and print up tickets, brochures, and placards for the rally; another guy drives different routes from the airport – which is across the Ohio River in West Virginia -- at which the candidate arrives; another is calling every reporter within 200 miles to say that this is an Event No One Can Miss.

Another is lining up volunteers, drivers, securing passenger vans for the campaign staff, the press, and hangers on who will all arrive in a chartered jet. That night, the five huddle over cigarettes and Red Bulls and think up every which way the whole event can fail – the Candidate stumbles, an attendee faints, a stage collapses -- and become a fiasco that ends up on a YouTube video getting a million hits.

Then suddenly it’s the day of the event – Game Day as it’s called. The Candidate arrives with police lights and siren escort, enters the field house from the back along the prearranged corridors, and pops out on an elevated walkway we designed, right in front of the school’s cheerleaders, who’ve been hired to get the crowd going.

As I watch from the side behind curtains, my phone goes off. It’s the campaign manager. He’s a Big Guy and Nellie is a Small Guy. I’m told that headquarters wants a non-media stop for 20 minutes at a “nice location” to accommodate a New York Times photographer doing a profile.
The five guys huddle and for once, Nellie has a brainstorm.

Earlier that morning, in going over the route for the eighth time, I’d passed the Marietta College football stadium and noticed a youth league football game on the stadium field. I suggest that venue, a guy is quickly sent to check it out while the Candidate is speaking. The stadium is old brick and picturesque in its own way. We envision the Candidate can stand on the sideline of the game or be speaking with parents in the bleachers for the photo shoot.

The speech ends, the ovation is large, and the police cars and vans head out to the stadium, about five minutes away. They pull up, the Candidate gets out with the New York Times photographer and they go through a tunnel into the stadium. I do too as the once-ever genius who thought this up.

It’s halftime and I quickly arrange with the team coaches to have the Candidate say a few words to the assembled teams -- these little kids with football helmets in these too-big pads. Thenit's a quick speech to the young cheerleaders, and a couple parents, to whom this is all a huge rush. The photographer is delighted with the dynamics of the photo; the Candidate is pleased to be around the kids. The campaign staff is pleased it took 15 minutes, not 20, and they can get back onto the plane for the next stop.

Now consider that this madcap kind of play is going on several times a day, for days on end. Each event, each staffer playing some role in convincing the public and the media that the Candidate is on fire.

That’s what is happening now as these five hopefuls surge through South Carolina, piling up event after event in a mad frenzy to get media and public traction. There are going to be electoral losers come Saturday. But I can tell you as a Game Day vet, none will lose for lack of effort.