The changing world of campaign advance feat. Marc Levitt
A presidential advance veteran breaks down the art of planning large-scale events in a changing media environment
Behind every large rally, town hall meeting, or major campaign stop, there’s a campaign staffer who has typically spent days or weeks planning the meticulous details of the event - from general strategy to day-of logistics. These “advance” staffers are often the unsung heroes of the campaign world, and have a behind-the-scenes impact on how a campaign looks and communicates its message in person and in the press. Marc Levitt knows that world well - he’s advised campaigns on successful advance work for almost two decades - including the Kerry, Obama, Sanders, and Yang presidential campaigns. For this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Marc to get his take on what a successful advance strategy looks like, especially in a changing technological and media environment.
Marc shares how campaign events are a great opportunity to talk to voters. Check out Arena’s Developing Your Message guide to learn how to develop your initial message.
Marc talks about how powerful earned media events can be to get your campaign’s message out to voters. Check out Arena’s Earned Media Guide to learn how to prep for an event with press.
Q&A with Marc Levitt
Campaigner: Some folks who are reading Campaigner won't really know what scheduling and advance are - could you explain it in layman’s terms?
Marc: All of those events that people see on the news where the President or the presidential candidate shows up have to be organized by someone. The scheduling and advance team is the department in a campaign that sets them up.
An advance team will sometimes go four or five days ahead of time to a given venue or a given city in order to establish what the candidate or the President is going to do. They work in coordination with the schedulers at headquarters, and then they build the event. That includes everything from making sure the crowd shows up, to making sure the press is well cared for, to making sure that the crowd is well cared for when they're there, to making sure, above all, that the candidate is cared for. That also means assuring the candidate has a podium to speak in front of, the decorations are set up the way that they're supposed to be, etc. All of that sort of magic that you see on television - which I think is built to look spontaneous - is actually very choreographed and very carefully planned.
Campaigner: How do you think events pulled off by the advance team fit into an overall campaign strategy?
Marc: Given the scale of things, the strategic importance of scheduling and advance really comes into play with large-scale presidential campaigns, but there are other ways that gubernatorial campaigns and maybe even House campaigns should think about it. But I think on the whole, you're talking mostly about presidential campaigns and when the campaign makes a decision about where the candidate should go and what they should do, that's more or less a communications decision deciding what audiences you want to speak to. The scheduling and advance department often works closely with the communications team to figure out where the candidate should go and what they should do when they get there.
A lot of that is derived from data-driven criteria. Where are our undecided or persuadable voters? Do we want to be in that media market with them on this given day? Do we want to have an event with them a week before the election?
Another perennial goal to consider is to mobilize the base. For rallies in particular, all the signups and all the excitement around them in the media generate a sort of positive feedback loop with field offices. It can help create more volunteer hours, help generate more supporter sign-ups, and attract people to the campaign. There are a lot of strategic applications for scheduling and advance work.
One other aspect of advance that's applicable in the Senate, gubernatorial and congressional campaign context, is that the advance and scheduling departments very frequently set up message events. What I mean by that is that message events have a campaign message either visibly behind the candidate or the candidate's periphery, or they are panel events where the advance team will set up a group of people to discuss a public issue that the candidate can moderate or weigh in on. Advance is a conduit through which the candidate communicates the most broadly. A campaign can put out press releases. But it's really what the candidate’s saying on any given day that people are paying attention to, and that is much of the scheduling and advance department's responsibility - putting the candidate in front of the media and the public.
Campaigner: Can you talk a little bit more about the different approaches that you experienced on the Obama campaign versus the Bernie campaign, how you’ve seen the work change over the years?
Marc: In terms of the changes from Obama to Bernie, I think there are some worth focusing on: one is technological and sociological. Although internet penetration was very high in 2008 and everybody touts the degree to which Obama was sort of the first purely internet candidate, the penetration of internet and digital access by 2016 was very different - much, much higher. And so as you can imagine it's very different when you’re trying to turn people out to an event.
It turns out that, in this day and age, it's actually very doable to get 10,000 people to a place in 24 hours - and it’s something that we did on Bernie a lot. We maybe did that kind of thing a little bit on Obama, but it was, certainly, more difficult and less mature.
“I think the timelines on which events can be built are now significantly shorter, and the reach that you have with your digital tools is much broader.”
There's also been a lot of consolidation in the industry. When I first started doing this stuff in 2004 and 2008, I had to call 10 or 20 different vendors (audiovisual, staging, etc.) to source all of the equipment that I would need for a given rally. By 2016, and certainly by 2020, things were a lot easier. You could call one person, maybe two, or you could have a long-term deal with one vendor in particular and do an entire campaign that way. That's a significant difference because it made things possible at a much lower price point in 2016 and 2020 than were possible in 2008. I mention that because I think that that actually opens up some opportunities for campaigns who may be less well-funded, who would otherwise say, “Oh, we're just gonna focus on TV ads,” to say, “Oh, well, actually we can afford to do these events at a higher production value.”
Campaigner: Are there ways that advance teams have changed how campaign events look or feel over the years? Are there certain trends you think we'll see in the future?
Marc: Bernie in particular made very good use of live streaming in a way that was much more advanced than what we were able to do on the Obama campaign. Back when Obama ran, getting a live stream of something was actually a very challenging, technical thing to do - and, it didn't necessarily have as broad of an audience.
Also, one thing that differentiated Bernie's campaign and differentiated Trump's campaign from other prior scheduling and advance efforts is that they focused almost entirely on rallies. So things like town halls, panel discussions, bus tours - which had been historically important elements of a campaign - those candidates just did not bother with them. I think that dovetails with the type of populism that infused the electorate over the course of the last couple of cycles. Whether or not that’s a permanent change is yet to be seen.
It also has to do with what the candidate likes and what the candidate is comfortable with. It has been very “rally centric” for the last couple of cycles. Hillary Clinton did a number of non-rally events, because rallying wasn't really her format. But one thing that has come abundantly clear is that rallies are a very, very successful tool for a “base” candidate. Why would a base candidate ever bother with a town hall when his or her whole goal is just to turn out voters?
Campaigner: As we head into the midterms, what are the kinds of things that you might advise people working on a statewide race about advance?
Marc: I think for a Senate or gubernatorial campaign, you need to have some level of advance. The candidate needs to know what they’re walking into any time they’re going into a building. As you've got much more press attention than you do at the congressional or municipal level, you never know when there's going to be a journalist there. So, frankly, you just need somebody to go ahead for you. I would also say that candidates need a body person who is going to keep their head on straight when attending 12 different events in a day. And you need a scheduler. All of those things fall under the scheduling and advance department. You can grow and scale from there, and hire consultants if you're only doing two to five major events for your whole cycle.
The model that I've seen work is to have a couple of advance staffers: somebody who calls themself Director of Advance, another person that calls themself deputy director, a scheduler, and a body person, and then sort of feel things out. If you find yourself needing to do large events or needing to do sophisticated events that require a decent bit of coordination, like a town hall, you could see a campaign having more.
Campaigns should also ask themselves what is the right balance between paid and earned media. Should we be spending our last dime on television advertising or should we take $15,000 to put together a competent town hall? That's how I would think about it. These are all questions that are going to be situationally determined by the specific race, and the larger the size of the state, the more relevant large media hits are going to be. Obviously, the campaign should know whether or not they'll even draw the kind of media or people to their event that they would need for it to be a success. A candidate that has less grassroots enthusiasm wouldn't necessarily bother with that stuff.
Campaigner: How do you measure success? When do you know if an event was worth the investment and should be repeated?
Marc: It’s difficult. There are a few ways to answer that question. One is, if nothing went wrong, that's a success. (Laughs) If nobody called me or complained to the candidate, that's a win. There also have been a couple of studies that have strongly suggested that these events do generate higher fundraising, higher volunteer hours, all of those things. Using the magic of whatever data analysts do, campaigns could figure out: Did a particular event lead to a measurable increase in donations from a given area? Did it lead to a measurable increase in volunteers and volunteer hours in a given area? Did it lead to a measurable increase in television coverage?
And then one other way to measure success is in earned media. Whenever we would touch down in a given area, I would get news clips back of whatever speech or event Bernie or Obama gave. And these clips would tell me what the dollar equivalent was of advertising around the local news in that timeframe, and often the cost of the event was far lower than the equivalent advertising from that station or local outlet. You know, local news is one of the last places on planet earth that people trust. You can throw all the paid ads in the world against the wall or against an electorate and not a single paid ad will have the credibility or the heft of seeing the candidate on your local ABC or NBC or CBS station. It just won't.
The impact is very difficult to measure. I think campaigns shy away from doing things that they can't measure right now, and that's a set of handcuffs. Those who have spent time on presidential campaigns know and understand and feel that the candidate's events are just super important. You can't do a campaign without them.
Campaigner: How do you think COVID has impacted all of this type of work?
Marc: Last year, I think Joe Biden did some phenomenal stuff, and his team was sort of reinventing the wheel doing events mid-COVID with social distancing and smaller circles of people. I think the contrast between that and the rallies that Trump was holding was really important. Holding those events that Joe Biden did with all of the social distancing and the careful planning so that people would be safe communicated a level of care that the candidate had.
But it’s now coming down to, are we going to have to do this again? I know the Biden campaign didn't knock doors for a portion of the campaign, and I could be wrong here, but I'm guessing that shaved off maybe a couple points nationally - so hopefully there's some sort of balance that gets struck between doing these things that are helpful to your campaign and keeping everybody safe from COVID. I don't frankly know what that looks like, but I know in my heart of hearts that COVID has the potential to handicap a campaign that does not tailor their activities a little bit more closely than the Biden campaign did this last time.
Campaigner: If the bulk of the jobs in advance are in the presidential cycle, what opportunities should folks take in the midterms that could set them up to join an advance team in the next presidential cycle?
I think the first thing is that people should just be intentional about trying to do advance work specifically. It's very easy to go and say, I'm going to go volunteer for a campaign, whether that's in the midterms or in the presidential cycle, and you end up doing field. People don't often know that advance is an option, and often the door is wide open. Most of the time you just have to talk to the right person to let people know that you are interested. The real trick is just walking in the door, but finding where the door is is sometimes a little bit challenging.
In terms of how to prepare yourself to do advanced work, I think it requires the same political savviness or awareness that goes into doing any kind of campaign work. In the midterms next year, do field, or do communications, and you’ll learn who campaigns are trying to reach. For example, understanding that campaigns aren’t trying to persuade everybody - that there's actually relatively few people you can persuade - that understanding lends itself really well to advance work as well. You need to know what the purpose is of the work you're doing and I think that can make you better prepared. 🇺🇸
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