I’ve always wanted to attend a presidential rally. It’s red, white and blue hype packaged with fanfare, colors, energy, and logistics and yet all put together knowing full well the candidate might have to cancel the event on short notice.
In Indiana, with its May 8th primary, the thrill of the race for the nomination is usually over by the time the voting gets to us. We still go through the motions for local elections but the “hang in the balance” nature of the presidential campaign is lost. With Michigan in the news ahead of next week’s critical primary, however, the candidates are making a number of stops in the state just next door. This contest or next month’s Ohio primary are our best shots at participating in a town hall meeting or presidential rally.
While my goal was to attend a presidential election rally, I’m glad this one was Republican. Had it been a Democrat rally, I’m pretty sure I would have needed to wash my hair that day and the opportunity would have been lost.
My heart says go but the rest of me is feeling pretty wasted today – my red counts must be down. As I throw some essentials into my overnight bag, I have to stop every few minutes to catch my breath, then begin again. But there’s a silver lining with these lowered red counts as this will require I take a wheelchair to handle the long walks and unknown seating options at the site and a wheelchair may give us an opportunity for better seating.
Sue and I set off for the Hope College campus in Holland, Michigan, the site of a Rick Santorum Town Hall meeting. This past week the Senator jumped ahead in the polls following his three state win while Romney’s numbers have declined. The media, sensing blood in the water with former front runner Romney, is keeping the storyline alive as Super Tuesday looms just weeks away. Furthermore, the media is fanning the flames and watching for Santorum to buckle under the increased spotlight. This Michigan vote will be looked back upon as a decisive moment in the 2012 election campaign and that likelihood adds to the rally’s energy.
We arrived 2 1/2 hours ahead of the scheduled start. Though there are only a handful of attendees milling around, the volunteers are fully engaged – scurrying around with banners, yard signs, smiles and open arms that direct us to the sign-in desk. Sue wheeled me into the rally’s meeting room – a space capable of holding 300 people – and we’re politely told it’s too early and the doors aren’t officially open. As we maneuver the wheelchair to exit, I ask that we be considered for seating to allow us a clear view of the platform. The guy who appears in charge of the main logistics (he’s the one with the most communication equipment but not the one with the poorest fitting suit) gives us a wink, throws a thumbs-up and indicates he’ll take care of us.
With an hour and a half before the doors open students begin to arrive . . . good looking kids with bright faces and colorful laptops. To my surprise, the phoning and texting, so common among this age group, is minimal. As they sit on the floor outside the main doors they actually engage in conversation. They test out the questions they’ll ask during the expected Q&A. As the lobby continues to fill the noise level gradually escalates.
We’re positioned behind the sign in desk next to an outlet to charge my camera battery. Another wheelchair attendee enters the lobby which reminds me to once again catch the eye of my front man as he passes by with a stack of Santorum placards. We’re still good.
Gradually, a few others are given early seats. I figure they’re significant donors to the local Republican party or else persistent gate crashers like myself. Emily and her campus Republican Club Leadership Team take to the platform to rehearse their part in the preliminaries. This is huge for them to be able to coordinate a town hall meeting for a front running presidential candidate. They make adjustments to their script and perform sound checks for the technicians squeezed into the gathering TV sound trucks located just outside the room.
Security arrives. These are the same men who give tickets to students with red stickers who parked in a blue parking lot on campus. They are physically fit and uniformly dressed with clean shirts and creased khakis. The Hope College anchor logo is smartly displayed on their shirts and windbreakers. The one with the fancy communications holster must be the chief. After checking in with the event coordinators the security team eyes the room and assigns themselves to corner positions.
They are not armed and their faces show it. They have no desire to be armed but at the same time they know they’re on patrol for a front running presidential candidate. Their minds replay old news reels of George Wallace, Gerald Ford, Bobby Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and other candidates who faced protestors or just plain crazy people. They shift in their stance. They are honored to be present but know their limitations. Oh for a streaker – I can handle that!
I was reminded of the Barney Fife clip where he deputizes some locals to ward off potential violence at the annual Mayberry Day Festival. Meaning no disrespect to these who came to help but I think you’ll enjoy the parallels.
There is increased buzz in the room as the anticipation grows. Even the doors are giving off signals. The main doors don’t swing as much indicating the room is at capacity. The door to the side entrance is guarded for members of the media and the technicians carrying cables and mics. But most eyes have identified the storage room door through which advance people increasingly pass. A frequent face at this door is a man dressed in a sharp business suit who initially gives off a vibe he will be making introductions or at least posting us on the Senator’s arrival. But all he does is look at camera angles, adjust the mic (up, down, back up), shuffle papers and plug in his phone charger. Early on the crowd catches its breath at his appearance but soon they grow disinterested in his charade and he’s no longer a signalman. The platform committee and staffers gather – the local Republican Party chairman, a high ranking State Senator, a local pastor, the college Republican Club leaders, my logistics guy and the Senator’s advance man. They huddle in the corner and check their watches and cell phones for updates on projected arrival times.
The room is completely full with most attendees standing. A few manage to sit on the floor near the front so as to not block the TV camera’s view. The crowd is excited, talkative and pleasant. Many people are known to each other. The state senator calls many by their first name.
Sue turns to me and says “I think we should sing God Bless America.” I say, “go for it.”. She turns to the lady on her right and suggests it and asks if she’ll join in to which she agrees. The people seated behind Sue are in on it too so she finds the pitch and we start in. It’s rather quiet at first – there’s only a small pocket of us singing under the higher level of conversation in the room. But gradually she gains singers and by the time we reach the final phrase the conversations rapidly stop and about 80% of the room gets in on the last phrase and starts to applaud. I pick it up and right away start the song a second time and now the whole room is in chorus as they offer a rousing rendition of the song followed by loud applause and cheers. Several people reach up and pat Sue on the back.
There is new excitement as a couple on the local advance team enter at the last minute with a banner reading “Made in America” to be hung on the wall behind the platform. The young man, unaccustomed to wearing a suit (and a badly fitting one at that) is armed with a roll of gray tape. He’s assisted by an attractive young lady who wishes now she hadn’t worn such a tight skirt this afternoon. It wasn’t designed for hanging posters. The crowd welcomes the change of pace and watches the two attempt to stick the weighty sign to the brick wall. It won’t hold but a few moments on the brick and the crowd collectively gasps. I can envision a clip running nationwide on the nightly news showing a hard charging Santorum addressing an enthusiastic crowd as “Made in America” comes crashing down behind him. It could later become a symbol of a faltering campaign and comedic fodder for an SNL skit.
As the sign falls the crowd cheers in sport and the young man turns to wave and smile at the crowd – he’s not done yet – more tape. He adjusts his suit and finds a more solid surface and adds extra gray tape and the crowd cheers its approval. The stage is set.
But the wait continues. Santorum’s previous meeting was up the road at Muskegon and yet no one is surprised by the delay now some 45 minutes past the projected start time. The crowd is still growing. The planners anticipated 250-300 would attendance but that number was quickly surpassed and an overflow room with a video feed was arranged for another 200 who were turned away at the door.
But now it’s clear the Senator and his party are in the building. The security staff checks their walkie-talkies and shift their feet once more. A sound technician leans forward and claps his hands while eying the TV cameras.
The family enters first followed by two body guards and after a quick invocation and brief introduction Santorum appears through the storage room doors and the crowd is on it’s feet. Rick plants a big kiss on his wife and heads to the podium.
For the next forty-five minutes he has the audience in the sway of his campaign cadence. He’s a gifted speaker. Sure, he’s familiar with the routine and speaks entirely without notes, but his ownership of his message outline and his passion are engaging.The three of his children traveling with him watch respectfully as they listen to their father’s familiar stump speech which they could probably recite verbatim.
In summarizing his remarks I would note how different it is to hear a candidate speak conversationally in complete paragraphs without a Teleprompter. Concepts are presented, reasoned, supported and concluded. It’s in clear contrast to the headline news sound bites or the time pressure format of debates. The pace of campaigning has changed so much. In the 1968 presidential campaign between Nixon and Humphrey the average length of a soundbite on the evening news was 48.9 seconds. In 1988 that measure had dropped to 8.9 seconds and in the 2000 campaign it was down to 7.3 seconds. So to be able to listen as the senator developed his thoughts was a special experience not afforded the average voter who takes the spoon fed clips from the news media.
What struck me most about the Senator’s presentation was the way he positioned the overriding themes of his candidacy. Where most of us are familiar with the “Vote for me – I’ll promise you this” format, Santorum was different. He didn’t jump from catchy topic of the day to the latest buzzword of politics but rather he laid out the case for those themes that guide his thinking as he tackles the many issues facing the country. He always carries a mini copy of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in his pocket and frequently referenced its guiding principals. It was a clear contrast to Clinton’s poll driven presidency and Obama’s personal agenda and blatant disregard for The Constitution. I found the Senator’s pro-American, pro-principled, and “leadership versus maintain the madness management” philosophy to be a welcome change from present day rhetoric.
As he wrapped up the Q&A session I noticed his aide (the last person to arrive) nudging the college Republicans to take the platform to make their gift presentation. It took three or four pushes to get the students to finally intrude on the Senator’s podium. After a brief presentation of a Hope College sweater vest the Senator and his wife came down to the front row of the crowd to shake hands and sign autographs. We were able to greet him with a handshake and good eye contact as he passed toward the media door for his exit. (That’s his son off his right shoulder in this picture of him greeting the crowd.)
It was a worthwhile and enjoyable experience and one I hope to repeat in Ohio and possibly Illinois in the coming weeks as the candidates make the rounds. Maybe a Romney or Gingrich event will afford other comparisons.