Every campaign's MVP: the advance person

Jul 29, 2012 By Mark Shields

For almost everybody in American politics -- except those shadowy individuals and companies, with their own unrevealed agendas, that make six-figure undisclosed contributions to influence the 2012 campaign -- any lingering "passion for anonymity" has been totally overcome.

Turn on the TV and flip the channels, and chances are good that you will find an on-camera interview with some campaign's manager, pollster, consultant, field director, press secretary, driver or receptionist.

When pushed, all of those interviewed will, almost without exception, emphasize what a caring but strong, thoughtful but decisive, and humorous but serious-minded candidate they are privileged to be working for.

The foregoing qualities of character and disposition are testified to by those campaign people working for presidential candidates. After what some might consider a misspent youth and middle-age covering American politics, I have concluded that Americans' vote for president is the "most personal" vote that any of us casts. We are far more apt to cast a vote based upon issues -- whether education, taxes or the environment -- when voting for Congress or the U.S. Senate, where we generally don't have a real personal "feel" for the candidates, than in our individual presidential decisions. Because of the information overload, we have heard from the presidential nominee's former classmates, in-laws, co-workers, neighbors and baby-sitters, and we feel we have a semi-informed sense of what kind of a person the would-be president really is.

Let me introduce you to the Most Important Unknown Individuals (other than the billionaire-underwriters) in 2012 politics: The Campaign Advance Person or, simply, Advance.

Think about it: How do we, outside of the rare soul-baring interview or the televised one-on-one debate, form our impressions of the presidential nominees? By observing in his public and personal appearances whether each nominee is natural or programmed, unpretentious or self-confident, quick or uncurious, funny or boring.

This is the job, in large part, of Advance, whose mission is to parachute into a city or town s/he has never before visited and to organize the candidate's visit to this crucial battleground state in four days or fewer.

Advance has to make countless politically sensitive decisions. Who will be -- or not be -- invited to greet the candidate at the airport arrival? Who, if anyone, will be allowed to travel with the candidate from the airport, from the hotel, to the event, from the event, back to the airport? Will that be the most influential local journalist? The mayor? A potential major donor? The party chair?

If the candidate's public appearance will be an indoor rally, Advance has to choose the site. If the room holds 500, then you need a crowd of 750 to demonstrate enthusiastic support and political momentum. The Advance Person is responsible for that crowd showing up. This could mean enlisting friendly unions, civic or business associations, or ethnic or religious groups to turn out their members.

Then there are the campaign signs for the event. Again, Advance must make sure they are clever, tasteful and hand-painted. Why hand-painted? To show ours is a grassroots, volunteer-heavy campaign. Because the TV cameras are often behind the crowd, the signs need to be painted on both sides. If the event is outdoors, Advance has to know that the sun will not be in the candidate's eyes or casting a shadow on the stage.

Where is the food and transportation for the press covering the candidate? Where is the private spot the candidate can get a nap or collect his thoughts? If the candidate is greeting blue-collar workers at a factory gate,

Advance knows that the only time workers will pause to shake hands is on their way into work, which they will postpone, never on the workers' way out of work, when they're in a hurry to get a beer or get home.

If everything works for the candidate event and the cameras capture an approachable, intelligent and spontaneous candidate, Advance has done its job. If anything goes wrong, Advance has screwed up. That's what makes the Advance Person's the most important, unknown job in campaign 2012.


Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields ia a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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