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Lights, Camera, Candidate! Anatomy Of A Presidential Campaign 'Event'

Tom Bullock

A stage with a carefully chosen backdrop. Characters. Music. All choreographed to emphasize an all-important script.

No, we’re not talking ballet.

Or a play.

But it is a form of theater, one North Carolinians will have the chance to see (a lot) over the coming months.

Let's face it, rallies are really for the faithful. Fundraisers are all about cash.

But there’s a third kind of campaign stop that lacks a descriptive name. Where the press is let in, but the doors are often closed to John and Jane Q. Public.

Let’s call this a campaign event.

Sometimes they make news, sometimes not.

And despite an effort to make these stops look effortless and off the cuff, there is an art to the components of these events.

Done well and your campaign makes their point. Done poorly and your opponent has a new batch of audio and video ready made for an attack ad.

Dr. Michael Bitzer of Catawba College helps to break down the key components of such a stop.

Besides being a political analyst,he teaches a particular class every four years that seems more than fitting - the art and science of campaigns and elections.

For this greatly condensed 101 version of his course, we’re going to focus on three key components: setting, music and message.

Our example is a recent event held by Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Mike Pence. But in reality, this is true for all campaigns regardless of party.


Credit Tom Bullock / WFAE
Locations lead to backdrops. In Charlotte that was boxes, pipes and an American flag at Charlotte Pipe and Foundry

Pence went to Charlotte Pipe and Foundry. The setting almost always tells you what the candidate's speech will focus on.

"If you’re in an industrial manufacturing center, then certainly the topic and theme and tone and message should all wrap around industry, jobs and manufacturing," says Bitzer.

Yup. Here’s Pence: "Today, in this great American success story I want to talk about jobs. I want to talk about trade."

Now, you may think this is a no brainer but a badly chosen set has derailed some campaigns.

Bitzer points to a moment in 1988 when Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis wanted to project an image of military strength. So the campaign had the candidate ride in a tank. "Well, that image backfired," explains Bitzer. "The Bush campaign used that as kind of a, 'look at him bouncing around in a tank. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.'" An attack ad was born.

In short, locations matter.

The next component is often overlooked, thought of more like filler or something to keep the crowd entertained before the speeches begin.


"Music," says Bitzer, "along every other message that a campaign is sending out needs to have a very clear intent."

The wrong song, like a bad ear-worm, can stay in your head and cloud the overall message. The right song can emphasize the point of the event. And Bitzer says Pence had a specific message for his Charlotte stop. "Probably more of an introduction perhaps, to individuals who may or may not necessarily know about the candidate."

Now Bitzer wasn’t at the event – but he might as well have picked Pence’s playlist. Which included this Michael Buble song:


The song reinforced the message and purpose of the stop.


No, not the pro forma attacks on opponents, touting of their policies, and asking for votes, but the deeper message of the event.

Pence’s stop was closed to the public but some 150 invited guests did attend. And they have a purpose. "If you’re invited it’s probably more that you may be on the fence or that you may not have, in the past, publicly expressed support," says Bitzer.

Normally VP’s are the attack dogs in a presidential campaign. But in 2016 that script has been flipped. "What we’re seeing this year with Mike Pence and Tim Kaine," Bitzer notes, "is that the top of the ticket is so polarizing and has such negative ratings that these two men are almost reassurances of kind of a humanity of their respective tickets."

Their job, in essence, is to humanize the name at the top of the ticket.

In Charlotte, Pence did that with a joke about getting hired to be Trump’s running mate. "I picked up the phone, heard that familiar voice," Pence began, then he tried his own Trump impression "and he said, 'Mike, it’s going to be great.'"

Okay, it was a bit awkward. So Pence continued with "Is that alright? Ok thanks. You get him don’t ya."

Pence is hoping they do – or will - get Trump.

There you have it three key components of an election event in 2016.

And if you’re one of the lucky folks to get invited to such an event, now you’ll know what to look for.

Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.