The Political Stage

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible.

Andrea Seabrook:
And DecodeDC. It’s a special joint episode between my friend here, Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
And my friend, Andrea Seabrook.

Roman Mars:
It’s election season, as you know. And Andrea and I found out we had a lot of the same questions about the political events that are everywhere right now.

Andrea Seabrook:
Questions like, how much of a debate or a press conference is genuinely spontaneous?

Roman Mars:
And how much is pre-planned? Who designs the theatre of politics?

Andrea Seabrook:
Why do speeches and town hall meetings look the way they do?

Roman Mars:
And what message are the campaigns trying to express with their design?

Andrea Seabrook:
To answer some of these questions, we tracked down two of the most interesting people I’ve ever talked to in politics. And we asked them for their secrets.

Roman Mars:
Secret #1. Every campaign has a brand. This is probably not a huge secret to anyone who’s paying close attention. But it’s more than just the politician himself as a brand, it’s an abstraction that floats on top of the human being that’s running for office. So, for Obama in 2008 was “Hope” and for Romney right now, I don’t know, I really can’t put my finger on it.

Andrea Seabrook:
Romney’s brand is like, “a competent businessman who can bring back jobs.”

Roman Mars:
That is the message that the campaign is selling and every detail is arranged to market that brand — the politician’s clothes, how he walks, what he says, where he goes, his sense of humor, his wife, his haircut, his watch.

Andrea Seabrook:
Which brings us to secret #2. Every campaign has a team of people who are in charge of making every event fit that brand. They’re called the “advance team.” From campaign headquarters, they’re given a location, a date, a type of event, and a plane ticket. Donny Fowler is a long-time advance guy. He worked for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama.

Roman Mars:
So, he’s a Democrat.

Andrea Seabrook:
Yes, very much a Democrat. And Fowler says that for every campaign event, there’s something you have to have on the stage, but it’s a different thing in every place.

Donny Fowler:
Whether it’s the flag, or in Iowa the hay bale, or the coal miner standing behind you in Ohio, or the beach if you’re in Florida, the Naval Yard if you’re in Virginia. So, you want local color, you want signs of Americana, and you want real people.

Andrea Seabrook:
The key he says is making the event look genuine, the politician look more human and good at relating to regular Americans.

Donny Fowler:
So you rarely are going to see, even Mitt Romney, in front of a boardroom with a bunch of white guys in blue suits and red ties. Because even though his background to his benefit, to his credit, is from the corporate boardroom, that’s not the kind of images you want to choose when you’re running for president.

Andrea Seabrook:
Now John Seaton, a Republican advance guy agrees.

John Seaton:
Having a bale of hay or corn reference to something like that, certainly kind of gives, you know, makes it clear that you’re somewhere rural. Makes it clear that if it’s caucus season in Iowa, it sends that message.

Andrea Seabrook:
Seaton works for Republicans like John McCain, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty.

Roman Mars:
And that brings us to secret #3. The advance teams run their campaigns pretty much the same way. Some are better funded than others, but they are doing the same thing — marketing brand day by day, event by event.

Andrea Seabrook:
Fowler says the advance team flies into the event location a week or more before a speech or rally. A 20-minute event requires several dozen people — campaign staff, secret service. They start there from zero and work hundreds and hundreds of hours to put together what might be that 20-minute campaign stop. The advance team is responsible for the staging of the event, from the flowers to the backdrop, to the security and the audience.

Roman Mars:
The first big decision is where to have the event.

Andrea Seabrook:
And that, says Fowler, can so easily go wrong. Like in 2004, when John Kerry went to the key primary South Carolina to announce his candidacy. Kerry’s a Vietnam War hero and he gave his speech in USS YorkTown, a massive aircraft carrier.

Roman Mars:
Which at the time seemed like a good idea.

[JOHN KERRY: EVERYONE IN AMERICA KNOWS IT’S NOT FAIR.]

Donny Fowler:
The crowd was tiny, especially in front of this huge aircraft carrier. A tiny crowd even looks tinier.

[JOHN KERRY: AND FAIR, ONCE AND FOR ALL.]

Andrea Seabrook:
There’s a big lesson in this one, says Fowler.

Donny Fowler:
Don’t put the candidate in a situation where he looks diminished because you can’t build a crowd. Same as the Romney economic speech this year, where he put it in a football stadium and there was only a few thousand people. It looked like nobody showed up to hear Romney talk about the economy.

[MITT ROMNEY: I WANT TO THANK THE FOLKS AT FORD FIELD FOR MAKING THIS SPACE AVAILABLE FOR US. I GUESS WE HAD A HARD TIME FINDING A LARGE ENOUGH PLACE TO MEET AND THIS CERTAINLY IS.]

Andrea Seabrook:
Now, the Republican advance guy, Seaton, also talked about that Romney speech, and he too says that choosing a venue that’s too large can be disastrous.

John Seaton:
You know, immediately before the candidate takes the stage, you have people tweeting and blogging about how candidate “X” clearly doesn’t have much support in this county because the venue is basically empty.

Andrea Seabrook:
And then remember, those weak applauses, the camera’s pan of the empty stadium will be played over and over and over again.

[NEWS REPORT: ROMNEY’S CAMPAIGN COULDN’T EVEN FILL ALL THE CHAIRS IN THE AUDIENCE!]

Andrea Seabrook:
Secret #4 is a corollary to this. Every campaign these days sends out, well, spies, I guess you could call them. To every one of their opponents’ events. In politics, they’re called trackers, says Seaton.

John Seaton:
Every event, generally, is going to have trackers from the other campaigns. You know, on the sides, to try and find anything they can use that will hurt your candidate.

Roman Mars:
So, here’s the half secret.

Andrea Seabrook:
The advanced staff of one candidate often becomes friendly with the trackers of their opponent.

[SAM: GOOD MORNING, RALPH.]

[RALPH: GOOD MORNING, SAM.]

Andrea Seabrook:
I mean hey, they’re in the same line of work. They see each other everywhere. It’s their life.

[SAM: WELL, BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME, RALPH.]

[RALPH: OH SURE, HE CAN’T WIN THEM ALL YOU KNOW. THANKS. NICE DAY, SAM.]

[SAM: YEP, GOOD TO BE ALIVE RALPH.]

Andrea Seabrook:
Secret #5. Everything is staged. I cannot stress this enough. And the longer in advance, an event is planned, the more granular that staging becomes. Take the debates, says Fowler.

Donny Fowler:
So, here’s what you’re seeing. It’s not an extemporaneous debate between two very smart people.

Andrea Seabrook:
No, it’s an incredibly finely staged theatre.

Donny Fowler:
Every little detail about that stage, how they’re standing, is discussed and litigated early.

Andrea Seabrook:
And if you watch carefully, says Seaton, you can tell.

John Seaton:
Look at how the candidate shakes hands, the presence they have with each other. What they are doing when the other person is talking.

Roman Mars:
Then, there are the conventions.

Andrea Seabrook:
Also incredible, dramaturgical feats. From the message of the speeches to the timing of the balloon drop. Even the chants of the crowd that seems so spontaneous. They’re completely pre-planned by the campaign staff.

John Seaton:
People are chanting. They’re all part of the production.

[AUDIENCE: ROMNEY-RYAN! ROMNEY-RYAN! ROMNEY-RYAN!]

Andrea Seabrook:
Seaton says each section of the convention floor has a campaign whip who receives instructions passed down from a central planner.

John Seaton:
And the whip makes sure that their sections are chanting appropriately.

Roman Mars:
Because left to their own device is a big group can be a big stupid mob. Like at the Republican convention this year when a bunch of people started chanting, “USA!”, preventing a committee of women from Puerto Rico from taking the mic.

[AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!]

Andrea Seabrook:
Which actually brings us to secret #6. No matter how carefully the advance team plans, campaign events can and do go wrong. And the biggest screw-ups, says Seaton, are totally self-inflicted.

John Seaton:
And I think everyone remembers Governor Palin doing an interview in front of turkeys being killed.

Andrea Seabrook:
The event was supposed to be a pardoning of a Thanksgiving Turkey, Palin’s attempt to do a presidential event. But when she took questions from reporters, she stood right in front of a slaughtering table.

[SARAH PALIN: OH. WELL, THIS WAS, THIS WAS NEAT. I WAS HAPPY TO GET TO BE INVITED TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS…]

Andrea Seabrook:
Behind her right now, a man is hoisting live turkeys up into a cone. So, he can slit their necks and bleed them to death.

John Seaton:
You see this happening, and it’s just like, there is no one there to say, maybe we should move this interview, you know, five feet to the left or something.

Andrea Seabrook:
Donny Fowler remembers a fancy fundraiser for Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign.

Donny Fowler:
Harvey Weinstein and Paul Newman were going to introduce President Bill Clinton into this big fundraiser in Connecticut. And I was in charge of telling Paul Newman and Harvey Weinstein when they were going to go up the stage to welcome President Clinton to the room. And in my little earpiece, I heard, “Where are you in the program. We’re on our way.” And so, I went to Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Newman, and said, “Gentleman, it’s time for you to introduce the president into the room.” So, they stand up and they say how happy they are to be there and they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please stand up. And welcome President Clinton to the room.” The doors of the back of the room opened, the spotlight shown on the doors, and in walked Kenny G.

[KENNY G. SONG PLAYS]

Donny Fowler:
So, Harvey Weinstein and Paul Newman looked at me from the stage like, “What the heck is going on man?” [laughs]

Andrea Seabrook:
Fowler realized the wrong person had been talking in his earpiece saying, “Let’s get started, we’re on our way.” He thought it was Clinton’s handlers, but it had been Kenny G’s.

Roman Mars:
And that brings us to secret #7. Everyone traveling with the campaign, the advance team, the handlers, probably even the candidate ends up loathing the music.

[“BEAUTIFUL DAY” BY U2 PLAYS]

Andrea Seabrook:
So do the reporters. [Sings “It’s a beautiful day!”]

John Seaton:
That sort of upbeat, we-love-America pop song that every candidate has.

Andrea Seabrook:
[Continues singing] God. It just makes me ill.

John Seaton:
Sometimes, it’s rock and roll. Sometimes, it’s country. But it’s inevitably an upbeat pop song that you come to the stage and you leave the stage, and you work the rope line—rope to. [laughs]

Donny Fowler:
Brooks & Dunn have got this song “Only in America” that has been used by both parties since President Bush in 2004.

[“ONLY IN AMERICA” BY BROOKS & DUNN PLAYS]

[ONLY IN AMERICA. TAKE ME RED, WHITE, AND BLUE.]

Andrea Seabrook:
The patriotic mix. Seaton and Fowler both of them serious political animals told us they do not miss that in the off years.

Roman Mars:
So Seaton, Fowler, I can’t remember who’s the Republican and who’s the Democrat.

Andrea Seabrook:
It doesn’t matter. They’re putting on the same show.

Roman Mars:
So, as we mentioned at the top of the show, this episode is a co-production of 99% Invisible and a new program from Andrea Seabrook called “DecodeDC.” Andrea was the congressional correspondent for NPR news for over a decade. And she’s given a lot of interviews about this new show and why she left NPR to cover politics in her own way. But when we were recording our voice tracks the other night, she said something that perfectly encapsulates why “DecodeDC” is so important.

Andrea Seabrook:
The key is making the event look gen—okay, I like this. Making the event look genuine. I love that.

Roman Mars:
[laughs]

Andrea Seabrook:
That like… those words together make me so happy. It’s like finally, I get to say what I mean to say. Okay.

Roman Mars:
Right now, Andrea is raising the seed money for “DecodeDC” on Kickstarter and I’m going to chip in because I want her to tell me stories about politics that matter, where she can say something like “looks genuine” every single week. You can listen to past episodes and support her show, at decodedc.com.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Andrea Seabrook and me, Roman Mars, with Sam Greenspan and Lina Misitzis. We are a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible comes in part from the Facebook design team who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at facebook.com/design. Support is also provided by TinyLetter. Email for people with something to say. My boy Mazlo has something to say. What do you have to say Mazlo?

Mazlo:
“My favorite thing to talk about is robots and Iron Man suits and stuff.”

Roman Mars:
Robots and Iron Man suits! I would subscribe to that letter. Tinyletter.com, the simplest way to send an email newsletter. From the people behind MailChimp. We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org. You can find the show and “like” the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars. And now, you can enjoy the show on Flipboard for your iPod or Smartphone. Our page is flipboard.com/99percentinvisible and right now, we’re also featured on the red couch interview with Mia Q. from Flipboard. So check that out. For more information about this program, including the music that we used in this show this week, go to 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. Eva

    Wow remember when Sarah Palin had a faux pas over a turkey and Bill Clinton campaigned with Harvey Weinstein?? By the way I love your website design. So clean and elegant. It reminds of outlook and a scientific field journal. Enjoying all your episodes as I work at home. Thank you for these awesome artful stories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist