The Political Stage

Roman: This is 99% Invisible.

Andrea: And Decode DC. This is a special joint episode between my friend here, Roman Mars.

Roman: And my friend Andrea Seabrook.

Roman: 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: Questions like, how much of a debate of press conference is genuinely spontaneous?

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

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

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

Andrea: 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: Secret number one. Every campaign has a brand. This is probably not a huge secret to anyone who’s paying close attention. But it’s is more than just the politician himself as a brand, it’s an abstraction that floats on top of the human being who’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: Romney’s brand is like, “a competent businessman who can bring back jobs.”

Roman: 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: Which brings us to secret number two. 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: So, he’s a Democrat.

Andrea: Yes, very much 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 this flag, or in Iowa the hay bale, or the coal miner standing behind you 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: The key he says is making the event look genuine, the politician looks more human and good at relating to regular Americans.

Donny: 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 board room, that’s not the kind of images you want to choose when you’re running for president.

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

John Seaton: It’s having a built of hay to corn reference to something like that, certainly kind of gives, makes it clear that you’re somewhere rural, somewhere secluded. If it’s caucus season in Iowa, it sends that message.

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

Roman: And that brings us to secret number three. 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: 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: The first big decision is where to have the event.

Andrea: 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, York Town, a massive aircraft carrier.

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

John Kerry: Everyone in America knows it’s not fair.

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

John Kerry: And fair once and for all.

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

Donny: 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 look like nobody showed up to hear Romney talk about the economy.

Romney: The folks at the 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: 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.

Seaton: You know? Immediately even before the candidate takes the stage, you have people tweeting and blogging about how candidate X clearly much support in this county because the venue is basically empty.

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

Man 1: Romney’s campaign couldn’t even fill all the chairs in the audience.

Andrea: Secret number four 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.

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: So, here’s the half secret.

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

Sam: Good morning Ralph.

Ralph: Good morning Sam.

Andrea: 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: Yes, good to be alive Ralph.

Andrea: Secret number five. 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: So, here’s what you’re seeing is not an extemporaneous debate between two very smart people.

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

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

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

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: Then, there are the conventions.

Andrea: 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.

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

Audience: [chants] Romney Ryan! Romney Ryan! Romney Ryan!

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

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

Roman: 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 people started chanting, “USA!”, preventing a committeewoman from Puerto Rico from taking the mic.

Audience: [chants] “USA! USA! USA!”

Andrea: Which actually brings us to secret number six. 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.

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

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

Palin: Oh. Well, this was, this was neat today. I was happy to get to be invited to participate in this. And you know, it…..

Andrea: 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.

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

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

Donny: Harvey Weinstein and Paul Newman were going to introduce President Bill Clinton to 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 go introduce 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.

[music plays]

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

Andrea: 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: And that brings us to secret number seven. Everyone traveling with the campaign, the advance team, the handlers, probably even the candidate ends up loathing the music.

Andrea: So do the reporters. [music plays] It’s a beautiful day.

Seaton: That’s sort of upbeat, “We love America” pop song that every candidate has.

Andrea: [sings] God. Just makes me ill.

Roman: [laughs]

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

Donny: Sometimes, we got this song “Only in America” has been used by both parties since President Bush in 2004.

[music plays]

Male Singer: Only in America. Take me red, white, and blue.

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

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

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

[music plays]

Roman: 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 Decode DC, Andrea was the correspondent friend of our news for over a decade. And she’s given a lot of interviews about this new show and why she left NBR 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 Decode DC is so important.

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

Roman: [laughs]

Andrea: That like-ish. Those words together make me so happy. It’s like finally, I get to say what I mean to say. Okay.

Roman: Right now, Andrea is raising the seed money for Decode DC 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 listen to past episodes and support her show, at

[music plays]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Andrea Seabrook and me, Roman Mars, with Sam Greenspan, and Linda [inaudible]. We are a project of KALW 97 local public radio in San Francisco, and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% invisible come in part from the Facebook design team who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at Support is also provided by TinyLetter. Email for people with something to say. My boy Maslow has something to say. What do you have to say Maslow?

Maslow: Today is we talk about is robots and Ironman suits stuff.

Roman: Robots and Ironman suits. I would subscribe to that letter., the simplest way to send an email newsletter from the people behind MailChimp. We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange making it public radio more public. Find out more at You can find the show and like the show on Facebook. I tweet @Roman Mars. And now, you can enjoy the show on Flipboard for your iPod or Smartphone. Our page is and right now, we’re also featured on the red couch interview with Mia Quagliarello [?] 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

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

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

All Categories