The nitty-gritty of campaigning for presidential nominations

Thursday, March 12, 2020
DePauw political science professor Bruce Stinebrickner (left) meets with former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer in the days leading up to the South Caroline primary election.
Courtesy photo

In this article I shall address four elements of campaigns as they operate “on the ground,” elements that have caught my eye while observing candidates and campaign events in Iowa in the last four presidential election cycles and in South Carolina in 2020. I shall treat (i) the sorts of activities in which candidates engage at their public appearances and how those activities can vary from candidate to candidate and from event to event, (ii) the appropriate size of venues for campaign events, (iii) celebrity supporters at candidates’ campaign appearances, and (iv) campaign event security. I shall then shift focus to addressing a few relevant individuals or groups of individuals besides the candidates themselves who reflect other relevant dimensions of campaigning that I have observed.

What do candidates do at campaign events?

Campaigns understandably like to vary the titles used for their candidates’ public events. Among the terms used are “Town Hall,” “Meet-and-Greet,” “G(et) O(ut) T(he) V(ote) Rally [that is, “GOTV Rally”] or just “Rally”, “Canvass Launch,” “Community Conversation” and “Breakfast with . . . [some group—e.g., local clergy or local public school educators]”. Such terms aside, a brief list can capture most of what candidates have done at the campaign events that I have observed during the presidential nomination process over the years.

Candidates can

i. give a speech,

ii. invite and answer questions from the audience,

iii. engage in discussion or questions-and-answers with a panel of people (sometimes “community people”) or a single person (or moderator) appearing on the stage with the candidate, and/or

iv. work the rope-line. Sometimes there is a “rope” separating the audience from the candidate, sometimes not. The bigger the crowd and the more prominent the candidate, the more likely there will be a “rope” or its functional equivalent separating audience members from the candidate and stage or speaker’s platform at the event. “Working the rope-line” includes meeting and talking with individual members of the audience, shaking hands and sometimes (more often than “sometimes” in the case of candidate Joe Biden) reaching out and touching or embracing people, and posing for “selfies” with the audience member. In recent years, cell phones are typically handed to staffers to take the photos and in that sense the resulting pictures are not literally “selfies.” Biden was the only 2020 candidate that I saw who himself took the selfies, and, as I have noted elsewhere, he seemed extremely skillful in doing so. Republican candidate Chris Christie also demonstrated memorable selfie expertise back in 2016 in Iowa.

Speeches or “brief remarks” by the candidate occur at most campaign events. Some events have a candidate’s speech as the main and essentially only agenda item (Bernie Sanders events often tend to be structured that way), while other events have speeches as well as other candidate activities. Biden’s 2020 events in Iowa and South Carolina typically included a speech as well as a question-and-answer segment with the public, and they always concluded with his working the rope-line.

Some candidates minimize working the rope-line and questions-and-answers or they skip one or both of these activities altogether. Candidate Elizabeth Warren has been widely reported as enjoying selfies and posing for lots of them. Squeezed by the Trump impeachment trial during the last week before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, however, Warren apologetically announced during her campaign swing the weekend before the Monday evening caucuses that her compressed schedule prevented her from doing selfies after she spoke. As an alternative, she said, her beloved dog Bailey would be available. (Yes, I had about five photos of Bailey and me taken by Warren staff members after an event in Ames, Iowa. The photos seem to be irrefutable evidence that Bailey is nowhere near as good at posing for selfies as candidates are.)

Different candidates respond to audience questions differently. Some, like Warren, seem to try to respond to the questions asked in a fairly direct way and then move on to the next question. Other candidates try to answer the question asked and then add some other points that, they suggest, the question has called to mind. Biden often uses a question, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, as a bridge to something else he wants to say. On one occasion in Iowa in 2020, candidate Biden was speaking in a somewhat challenging venue that had audience members arrayed on all sides of him and gave what seemed to me a masterful performance. He fielded questions crisply and directly and then sometimes linked a question or his answer back to earlier questions that had been asked. He occasionally even pointed out the location and identity of the earlier questioner (e.g., “The question that that lady over there in the blue coat raised earlier is related to the topic of your [later] question in these ways: . . . .”). Candidate Tom Steyer seemed particularly eager to engage with the specific questions asked, occasionally asking whether he had done so to the satisfaction of the questioners. Sometimes candidate Pete Buttigieg seemed to take a favorite “answer” off his mental shelf, so to speak, and use it to “respond” to whatever question was posed, no matter how tenuous the connection.

Unsurprisingly, candidate appearances tend to emphasize the strengths of candidates and minimize their weaknesses. Thus, candidate Joe Biden engaged in extensive rope-lining at each of his five 2020 campaign events in Iowa and South Carolina that I attended, presumably because Biden is good at rope-lining and seems to enjoy it. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, seems less comfortable and skilled at rope-lining and seemed to do less of it. Based on my own experiences with Pete Buttigieg, I think that he is not good at rope-lining, but he nevertheless seemed to engage in it regularly.

Turn people away or have a less-than-full venue?

Let me begin by identifying what seem like two contrasting responses to this “size of venue” question, those of 2020 Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The Sanders campaign scheduled a Friday evening event in the Des Moines area three days before the Iowa caucuses at the Horizon Events Center, a venue that can accommodate thousands of people. Scheduled to appear with the candidate were Bon Iver, a popular Indie folk band. As it turned out, candidate Sanders was tied up in Washington with the Trump impeachment trial and did not make it to the event, but several members of the U.S. House of Representatives who support Sanders appeared in his stead. My rough guess is that three to four thousand people attended, and they seemed to pay attention to both the political talk from the members of Congress as well as the subsequent performance by Bon Iver. Despite the big crowd, there was some room to spare in the cavernous venue. A month later and a few days before the South Carolina primary, Sanders spoke at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, another big indoor venue that probably could hold five to six thousand people. A sizable crowd that I estimated to be three to four thousand people attended and heard Bernie deliver a rousing campaign speech.

In contrast to Sanders, in my experience the Warren campaign seemed inclined to schedule its candidate in venues that filled to capacity and made it necessary to turn people away. At Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, Warren was scheduled to speak in a modestly sized room (capacity: 300 to 400 people?) that filled to capacity, resulting in 300 or more people, including me, being unable to get in. I had been in the same Simpson College building for a Sanders event the day before and I had made it a point to check out the location of the Warren event scheduled for the following day. My immediate reaction was to wonder whether it would be too small for the likely Warren crowd, and it turned out that it was. There were alternative spaces in the same Simpson College building that were bigger, empty and presumably available at the time of the Warren event, but for whatever reason the Warren campaign used a room that could not accommodate all those who came to hear the candidate speak. Fast forward to Charleston, S.C., four weeks later, where Warren was scheduled to appear with celebrated singer and composer John Legend at the Charleston Music Hall, a downtown venue with a listed capacity of 935 people. This time at least 400 would-be attenders were turned away, once again including me.

It’s worth noting how the Warren campaign and Warren herself handled both these overflow situations. In Iowa, overflow folks gathered in a large downstairs lobby, one floor below where the filled-to-capacity hall for the event was located; in Charleston, S.C., overflow people were directed to gather outside on one side of the Music Hall. Both times the candidate made a brief appearance before the overflow crowd, and both times she began by saying the same thing: “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that so many people came to support my campaign that they couldn’t all get in. The bad news is that you are the folks who couldn’t get in.” When I first heard those words in Iowa, I laughed along with the crowd and I felt my disappointment at not getting into the Warren event lessen. In Charleston when I heard Warren use the same phrasing, I wondered just how rehearsed (and frequently used?) those remarks were.

Republican candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 has seemed to embrace the Warren instead of the Sanders approach to venue size and to turning people away. In 2016, candidate Trump held a fundraiser for military veterans in Des Moines the night of a televised Republican debate just before the Iowa caucuses. (Some commentators said at the time that he scheduled the event to avoid having to face his Republican competitors face-to-face on the debate stage.) The venue filled to capacity several hours before the event. Hundreds and hundreds of people with tickets waited outside in vain. In 2020, President Trump held a rally the night before the Iowa caucuses at a Drake University hall that holds 775 people. Sitting nearby was the Drake Indoor Track and Field arena, which perhaps could hold as many as five to seven thousand people. I received electronic tickets to these two Trump rallies in 2016 and 2020, and the tickets explicitly said that admission was not guaranteed and that those wanting to get in should arrive as much as four to five hours before the scheduled time of the event. (I realize that a president inevitably draws big crowds to his events and that there simply may not be a venue that can accommodate all those who want to attend. Even so, Drake University and the city of Des Moines certainly has venues that hold substantially more than 775 people.)

I understand the reasons that a political candidate does not want to appear in a too-empty venue. I also think that it is not good to turn people away from a campaign event. I myself favor the Sanders approach over that of Warren and Trump.

Celebrity performers appearing with candidates at campaign events

In Iowa and South Carolina in 2020 I went to three events at which celebrity entertainers appeared with candidates: Sanders (Bon Iver in the Des Moines area), Warren (John Legend in Charleston, S.C.), and Steyers (Juvenile, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Yolanda Adams and Bianca Chardei in Columbia, S.C.). The objective of including celebrities is, of course, to attract bigger crowds to a candidate’s campaign event and to produce greater publicity and anticipation about it.

I have mixed feelings about the use of celebrities. On the one hand, such celebrities probably do attract additional people to a campaign event. On the other hand, such performers may undermine a candidate’s ability to deliver his or her message effectively at the event. Moreover, it seems imperative that the event venue be big enough to accommodate the bigger expected crowd. Otherwise, a candidate runs the risk of inconveniencing and disappointing supporters or potential supporters who had come to see the celebrity performer and/or the candidate. Ever since volunteering in a U.S. congressman’s campaign for re-election on Long Island, N.Y., decades ago, I have wondered how much benefit a candidate derives from on-the-stage support from celebrity performers at campaign events. A half-century later I am still wondering.

Some celebrity performers simply play or sing a couple of numbers; others speak about the candidate and explicitly urge those present to join them in supporting the candidate. A variant on celebrity musical performers appearing at a candidate’s campaign event is to have known politicians, “political celebrities,” if you will — a governor or former governor, a U.S. senator or local U.S. House member, a local mayor or state representative — declare support for the presidential candidate and exhort those in attendance to support that candidate as well. It has been widely observed that long-time U.S. Congressman James Clyburn’s endorsement of candidate Joe Biden was an important factor in Biden’s easy win in the South Carolina 2020 primary. I don’t think, however, that Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, appeared at any Biden campaign events after giving his much-publicized and much-prized endorsement a few days before the primary.


I’ll be short and sweet here. I attended more than 20 candidate appearances (nine different Democratic and Republican candidates in all) in Iowa and South Carolina in 2020, and at only one candidate’s appearances was there any security screening (walk-through screening machines or wanding) before an individual could enter the venue. The one candidate was Bernie Sanders. I don’t know why Sanders and his campaign decided to have such security measures, but they certainly worked to slow the flow of people into Sanders events. Former Vice President Biden had one visible security man on his team, and he was always reasonably close to the candidate, keeping his eyes intently fixed on those near Biden when the candidate was “rope-lining.” I did not notice any campaign security personnel — other than local law enforcement officers in some cases — at any other candidate’s campaign events.

Observations about a few relevant individuals besides the candidates themselves

The Warren campaign’s paid staffer from Seattle. Before I left the site of a Warren GOTV rally in Columbia on the morning of the South Carolina primary, I spoke with a staffer as she was taking Warren posters down from the walls. The young woman hailed from Seattle, and was a paid staff member whom the campaign had flown into South Carolina to work with South Carolina staff and volunteers working for Warren. I asked her where she was going next. She said that she was exhausted and was flying home to Seattle for a few days of much-needed rest and relaxation. “What then?”, I asked. She replied that “they will contact me when they need me again and send me a plane ticket to get to where they want me to go.” (Given that candidate Warren ended her campaign two days after Super Tuesday, it seems clear that this campaign staffer will not be flying anywhere to campaign for Warren in the foreseeable future.)

The Biden volunteer from Brooklyn. Leaving that same Elizabeth Warren event in Columbia on the morning of the primary, I was carrying a bunch of Warren posters and signs that I had acquired. (Yes, I by now have a pretty extensive collection of 2020 candidates’ signs, posters, etc.) Walking in the residential neighborhood where I had parked my car, I encountered a middle-aged man with some Biden paraphernalia and a clipboard. We looked at each other and he said “I guess we don’t support the same candidate.” I said that I had picked up the Warren materials as souvenirs and that he shouldn’t infer that I was a Warren supporter. I also said that “I assume that you are going door-to-door on behalf of Biden.” He said that he was, and told me that he was from Brooklyn, NY. I asked him whether he was a full-time staffer or a volunteer for the Biden campaign. He said that he had considered giving up his job before Iowa to work full-time for candidate Biden, but had decided not to do so. Instead he had kept his job and was using the money he makes to finance his weekend trips to wherever he could help out. He said that in 2020 he had done volunteer work for Biden in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada before coming to South Carolina. I replied, “So, since January you have been travelling to different states every weekend?” He answered, “Yup, that’s pretty much how I have been spending my life. I’d love to talk more, but I’ve got to get back to my campaign work now, going to the houses of declared Biden supporters to make sure that they get out to vote today.” We said goodbye and went on our separate ways. I had not previously associated candidate Biden with the sort of dedicated and seemingly selfless supporter that the man from Brooklyn seemed to be.

Audiences, endorsers, race, and spouses in South Carolina. I routinely look at the composition of audiences at candidate events that I attend — age, race, gender, etc. South Carolina, of course, has a greater proportion of African Americans than Iowa or New Hampshire. Indeed, more than 50 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina typically are African Americans, and that was one of the main reasons that candidate Biden was expected to do well. The audiences at the campaign events of Sanders (one), Buttigeig (two), and Warren (two) that I attended in South Carolina had only a sprinkling of African Americans in the audience, perhaps 10 to 15 percent at most. What was surprising to me was that the two Biden events in South Carolina (one in Coastal Carolina University in Conway, one in Sumter) that I saw did not seem to have all that many more. In contrast, the audience at candidate Tom Steyer’s morning event in Sumter that I attended was perhaps 25 to 35 percent African American, and the crowd at Steyer’s evening GOTV rally that I attended at Allen University, a historically black university in Columbia, was almost entirely African American college students.

It wasn’t that candidates did not seem to be trying to extend their appeal across racial lines. Presidential candidates regularly ask state or local elected officials or former officials for their public support. As already mentioned, these “endorsers” often appear at their preferred candidate’s campaign events, giving brief speeches supporting their candidate and sometimes being the one who welcomes the candidate to the stage or speaking platform. In South Carolina, the African American state legislators/endorsers who spoke at Warren, Steyer and Buttigieg campaign events were young and very good speakers. The one Sanders event that I attended in South Carolina had a number of mostly African American supporters speaking on behalf of the candidate before he himself appeared. These Sanders speakers varied more in age than their Warren, Steyer and Buttigieg counterparts.

The endorsers of candidate Biden who spoke at his events were markedly different from those endorsing and speaking in support of other candidates. While Biden’s speakers were, like the endorsers of other candidates who spoke at their campaign events, mostly African Americans, Biden’s speakers were visibly older than those of other candidates. A DePauw colleague with whom I spoke after returning from South Carolina observed that Biden would, of course, have an older cadre of African American supporters than other candidates. Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate nearly half a century ago, and during his lengthy political career he has no doubt worked with a generation or two of South Carolina politicians who, like him, have grown older. After Biden declared his 2020 presidential candidacy, many of those long-time political associates were happy to support him, and they did.

Let me turn briefly to one last topic, the phenomenon of family members, specifically spouses, speaking at candidates’ campaign events. In Iowa in 2020 I saw Jill Biden and Jane Sanders speak at campaign events before their candidate husbands spoke; I also saw the wives of Republican candidates Joe Walsh and Bill Weld play active and visible roles at their husbands’ meet-and-greet events at coffee houses. In contrast, I never saw the spouses of Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg speak on behalf of their partners. Of course, my sample size of events is small and perhaps unrepresentative. Even so, a conversation that I had with former Greencastle Mayor Mike Harmless after I returned from South Carolina has made me wonder whether women (and gay men) are generally less likely to have their spouses speak on their behalf than heterosexual male candidates are.