Presidential campaign advance is arguably the most fun you can have in politics. It’s constantly challenging, always different and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Without advance teams, presidential campaigns couldn’t function, candidates couldn’t deliver their messages consistently and reliably, the press couldn’t count on their ability to cover candidates, and there wouldn’t be anyone to blame when some local bigwig complains because he or she didn’t get enough love when the candidate came to town.
The job itself requires a unique skill set. There’s no equivalence in the private sector or at any other level of politics. Creating images for guaranteed national exposure in the media, feeding the expectations of the ever-present, voracious press corps and choreographing hundreds or thousands of event participants—the pubic, the pols, the candidate and the traveling staff—aren’t the kinds of activities that crop up on a daily basis for months on end. That is unless you’re running for president of the United States.
Still, down-ballot campaigns can learn valuable lessons from the hyperactive world of presidential advance. After all, the mission of advance at any level is to control the output of the news media and the image of the candidate. Down-ballot campaigns also want their media coverage to look like non-paid advertisements for their candidates.
An advance operation within your campaign, consisting of even one person, can reap rewards and help your candidate avoid confusion. But most campaigns are unlikely to spend scarce funds on a dedicated advance staffer. Those that try to incorporate advance into their structure usually get by with interns, volunteers, a sub-entry level staff position or a combination of all three.
My advice is have at least one person, although more is better, whose primary responsibility is advance. It would be helpful if that person is good at getting others to join in for free. That person can be young and inexperienced, but you can jumpstart her or his ability to function with some training.
How to Train for Some Gain
Advance should be viewed as an integral part of the media and communication operations, as well as a valuable resource for GOTV and field. Set aside at least one day as early as functionally possible in your campaign to bring the entire operation together to improve their professional skills and solidify the needs and expectations of every element. (I promise not to use the word “synergy.”)
Hire a marketing/communication professional for the day as well as a campaign veteran to train them. It’s important that advance staff know the media culture, what reporters look for in stories, what they want in terms of visuals that represent the story and how they interact with political staff. This is the reason so many former journalists are hired to be directors of communications or official spokespersons despite their confounded inability to view the job as a marketing/communication position.
It’s critically important that everyone on the communication team view the campaign, at least in part, as a marketing exercise—albeit one with potholes. Republicans at the state and congressional levels know that. Democrats, with notable exceptions, haven’t proven it lately.
Finding the Right Visuals
Don’t think of advance as merely the people who set up the chairs at your candidate’s local appearances. First and foremost, the advance person should be adept at identifying the right visuals to graphically represent the candidate’s message. A good advance person could have been able to avoid blunders like Mike Dukakis wearing a helmet riding in a tank or Sarah Palin being interviewed on television in front of a live turkey beheading operation, blood and all.
Advance can help your press secretary ensure that news media locally are aware of what’s happening on their doorstep and why it’s newsworthy, and then ensure their ability to cover the story and amplify the candidate’s message.
The Gift of Gab
While advance staff will rarely speak to the media on the record, a good advance person will interact with reporters and producers to go over on-site logistics. It’s wise for all campaign staff to remember that the news media is a target audience too. You want to impress them with your professionalism, and a little professionalism, augmented by a little training, goes a long way toward building a good relationship. If you employ an advance person whose job it is to help journalists cover your candidate, essentially act as a facilitator and do it with good humor and objectivity, journalists will appreciate it.
Conversely, if a reporter has a negative impression of a campaign’s competence, on any level, it can creep into that reporter’s coverage, if only subtly. It’s said that the public rarely cares about “process” stories. Don’t believe it. If your local news media is personally offended by your campaign’s lack of professionalism, they may use it as a cudgel to beat your campaign to death.
Is it possible for advance staff to make a down-ballot campaign look too slick? I suppose, but my suggestion is don’t worry about it. It likely won’t happen. Again with notable exceptions, you won’t have the resources to approach slickness. Bad taste, maybe. The same holds true for 43 of the 45 candidates who comprise 2016’s crop of presidential contenders.
The Tip of the Spear
Advance brings the candidate to town and thereby brings the circus to town. As a result, advance should be an integral part of the candidate’s relations with supporters and potential supporters on the ground, in real time, at the direction of headquarters staff. Once again, a little training and a little experience will enable a reasonably intelligent and motivated young staffer to ensure that the candidate’s immediate audience leaves with every expectation fulfilled.
Ultimately, you want to ensure that those who meet your candidate become good outside validators for the campaign, because they’ll amplify the message on a retail basis even if the media didn’t attend a particular event. A good advance person can get private citizens to publicize their impressions of the candidate through their own local news media or to their friends and family. Local citizens are very credible. Sometimes they just need to be asked and shown how. Who better to do that than your handy advance person?
Imagine Grandma Sadie calling in to her local radio talk show to tell the world how wonderful your candidate is. You never can get enough of that. Or imagine a college student who’s motivated by your advance person to reach out to her friends on Twitter and Facebook. It’s advisable to strike while the iron is hot, when people are present and enthused.
Thinking Like a Reporter
Your advance staff is on-site and responsible for squeezing the most out of every public moment your candidate endures or enjoys, depending on your candidate’s personality. It means you have a professional on-site who’s attuned to identifying more media opportunities and more opportunities to combine public outreach opportunities to find synergy (sorry, couldn’t help it).
For instance, your candidate is going to Springfield to address an education convention and the advance person knows there’s a school in town where the husband of the local party chairwoman teaches civics. He’s been quietly mentioning that he wants your candidate to come speak to his class—hey, let’s combine the two, and get two sets of great visuals that reinforce one another and reinforce your message. A press secretary or political director might not be aware of that information or even think in those terms.
With the advent of social media, an advance person’s scope of impact can be as large as your campaign can imagine. You want people who move ahead of your candidate, tasked with making your campaign’s media dreams come true through the next news cycle, and the next one and the next one.
Down-ballot campaigns need to think of advance staff as multi-skilled professionals, capable not only of independent judgment on the road but demanding it of them. If empowered, a good advance person can also help the candidate and the campaign avoid a lot of mistakes that can’t be undone. Silly stuff happens, and it’s helpful if you have a person who’s attuned to watch for potential screw-ups from the minor to the catastrophic that might become fodder for the press.
Creating an advance position, whether staff or “expenses only,” can pay for itself in terms of feeding your communication outreach, GOTV efforts, volunteer recruitment, microtargeting and fundraising. An advance operation ought to be part of your campaign strategy as well as your daily operations, providing information and action for every element of your campaign structure.
Remember, “branding” isn’t just about your logo or your campaign colors. Those are physical manifestations of branding, which is, to put it accurately, about the location and arousal of affection. In some ways it’s easier to create a brand in down-ballot elections, but it takes diligence, dogged determination and repetition to cram it down voters’ throats until they finally relent and feel true affection for your candidate. Good advance can help make that happen. Great advance helps everything happen.
Steven Jacques has served on the White House staff and in senior positions in the State Department and Department of Commerce, and on national staff in eleven presidential campaigns. His new novel, Advance Man, A Presidential Campaign Adventure, is available on Amazon.