Anatomy of a Mass Rally in the Hills of Western North Carolina
By Al Giordano
ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA; OCTOBER 5, 2008: You watch a presidential candidate on TV or on the Internet in front of cheering crowds, reported by national and international media.
You see him frame the day's message through his words.
You read the headlines...
If you think such messages seep into the political datasphere simply because a candidate announces he'll be at a place at a specific time, and invites ten or twenty thousand supporters show up to cheer, and he just talks and the media dutifully writes it all down and films it, think again.
Today's Obama appearance - like all the others with big crowds that have taken place during this campaign - involved hundreds of trained volunteers and dozens of intensely prepared staff members.
When you gather tens of thousands of people together, so many things can go wrong that can either trip a candidate off his message of the day, or leave local supporters disheartened or feeling abused as props, or miss opportunities to organize all the people who show up to expand and get out the vote on and before Election Day.
Like any presidential campaign, Obama's has an advance team: staffers that go from town to town ahead of the candidate to make sure these events go as planned, without distracting or harmful incidence and for maximum organizing impact.
They build a stage, erect risers for the TV cameras, pitch a tent for the traveling press, wire a mega sound system and, in case of a cloudy day or a nighttime event, put up lights so that thousands can hear and see the candidate in the flesh, and millions more through the media.
They strategically locate placards with slogans - "CHANGE THAT WE NEED" - and "visuals" - in today's case, as in other places, some bleachers erected behind the podium so that cheering supporters can be seen behind the candidate, and a four-story American flag draped down a school building to which allegiance would be pledged - in order to reinforce the message that will be spoken.
Before the candidate arrives, the microphones and teleprompter are tested, the campaign posters are fixed in position... and those are just the easy parts of the set-up.
The harder part could be called "herding cats."
You've got thousands of supporters, but many of them haven't thought a whit about how to package a message through the media for mass public consumption. And all of them have their own human needs when they wait and stand for hours under a hot sun. They include children and elders and everybody in between. Most of them want to get as close as possible to the candidate, touch him, speak with him, take his photo up close.
Today, The Field attended its umpteenth appearance by a presidential candidate this year, this time paying special attention to how these massive events are put together. For that, too, will soon become part of the ground-level history of the 2008 campaign: The Organizing of The President TM.
On the Saturday night before the event, the Obama staff convened more than 200 volunteers for a training session at the Asheville High School basketball arena, next door to the huge football stadium where the candidate and his supporters would convene on Sunday.
Two national staffers - a young woman (her name, either Polly or Paulie) and a young man named Frankie - trained the volunteers for the various jobs that would need to be done to pull the event off effectively.
One team would work the parking lots: they would instruct those arriving that they couldn't bring in pets, chairs, umbrellas, signs or banners. They would direct the disabled and the press toward their separate entrances. They would inform the smokers of the school's anti-tobacco policy ("buy Nicorette," yours truly took a mental note). And direct them toward the entrance, where twelve Homeland Security airport-style "MAG" machines (you know them as metal detectors) would check each and every attendee's belongings under the watchful eyes of law enforcement agents.
The Secret Service would, of course, be on hand. Its job is to protect the candidate. But there were many other public safety and security tasks that federal, state and local police agencies would be present to handle. Members of the school's ROTC corps would also be helping out at the entrances.
Other teams would work the lines of people waiting to get in, making sure that each attendee filled out a ticket with his and her name, address, and contact info, to be used in the get-out-the-vote drive ahead. Each ticket would come with a stub that the supporter would be able to take home as a souvenir.
They instructed the volunteers that as members of the campaign team they must decline press interviews during the event, wear "official" campaign tee-shirts if they had them, and that "playground rules" applied: "No running, no shouting," since either activity is the sort that can spread panic in a crowd.
Members of the public would be allowed to bring cameras or video equipment and, as they entered the stadium, would be asked to turn the devices on to prove that's what they are. No tripods would be allowed outside of the cordoned-off press area.
Another team would be assigned to "ADAs" (acronym-speak for the Americans with Disabilities Act): to escort and aide people in wheelchairs, on canes, or with other needs, guide and bring them along the school running track to a special seating area by the side of the stage. They were to treat these rally-goers as "the most important attendees" and show them every courtesy.
Another team would be assigned to the press, to guide us toward a specific area, and keep us out of the general population (the press area abutted various sectors of of civilians and there turned out to be plenty of access to interview the folks). "We like the press," explained the national staffer. "We just want to like them in one place."
Two teams of "ushers" would be stationed throughout the stadium and at each entrance and exit point between sections. They were given smart instructions on how to direct people into the 7,000 bleacher seats on each side of the field; one row at a time, and by section (and at today's rally, that's exactly how it happened).
Another team would be responsible for staffing and refilling "water stations" throughout the stadium, to keep the crowd hydrated as it waited three hours under a the beating sun. All volunteers were asked to keep an eye out for anybody that might be looking feint, to get water to them, and, if need be, escort such a person to a seated area.
There were instructions on how to deal with protestors (it turned out there were none inside the stadium, just a few McCainiacs that never made it inside the gates) and coaching on how to get an enthusiastic Obama supporter to give up his homemade sign (this, they said, would be a tougher task than dissuading protestors).
The advance team from the national staff had arrived the day before the event to build the stage, bring in 500 chairs, the sound system, hundreds of yards worth of temporary barriers, and other such tasks. Volunteers were recruited to help unload the chairs and barriers into the night. All volunteers were to report at 9 a.m. to their posts for an event that would open its gates at or shortly before noon.
At almost two hours into the Saturday night training session, the 200 volunteers broke into those groups, each with designated team captains, to begin a walk-through of their tasks.
On Sunday morning and afternoon, every single team complied with its task flawlessly, with the exception of whatever police agency decided to put only a dozen metal detectors at the entrances. Only about 10,000 of the people made into the stadium before Obama began his speech shortly after two p.m.. The Asheville police estimate 28,000 people inside or trying to get into the venue today.
Many who stood on line for hours and didn't get in were at least able able to see and hear the event, as the line formed from up a big hill overlooking the field.
An additional group of volunteers - that did not attend Saturday night's training session - walked up and down the long lines of people heading into the stadium. They brandished clipboards and asked everyone if they were registered to vote or needed to update their voting addresses. And they registered hundreds of new voters.
You see these events on TV, or in the next day's newspaper, or maybe on YouTube, and it's a sound bite or two about Obama clocking McCain over wanting to tax people's health care benefits and shift the subject from the economy.
But a mass event - if it goes well, as it did today - is much less simple than it appears.
If good organization wins elections (and it most certainly does), I'd say that the Obama campaign in Western North Carolina is poised to turn at least two "red" counties "blue" on Election Day, and perhaps a few more.
When we get done investigating and crunching the numbers, you'll be among the first to know.
Update: We saw today, again, the intense investment of the Obama campaign in a "red" state that until a week or two ago, the hotshot political reporters thought wasn't even a battleground state, much less capable of turning "blue."
Well, well, well: Guess where Obama is headed, first thing, after Tuesday night's debate?
The Indiana State Fair Grounds in Indianapolis.
All this playing of offense has got to be driving the McCain camp bat crazy. While they pull back to defend a shrinking list of swing states, Obama's advancing into enemy territory, where he'll force his rival to spend resources he doesn't have to defend "red" states that are no longer in the bag for the Republican.
Update II: Jonathan Martin, meanwhile, is doing an excellent job of reporting the denouement of McCain in Michigan and Virginia. Such is the epidemic of Chicken Little-ism. Many Republicans, never inoculated, are succumbing. (And none of their bloggers have figured out the coveted recipe in the cure!)
"How on earth are we to get people to work for McCain here, when he has already, publicly, in the media, given up on Michigan?" says one GOP leader up there.
“He didn't take threat seriously soon enough,” said a GOP leader in Virginia.
Tomorrow is the last day for new voter registration in both states. It will be interesting to see how the final results might bring more panic.