Setting the stage for success Sep 30, 2016

Political Advance Teams

IF POLITICS IS THEATER, political advance teams are the inveterate behind-the-scenes pros responsible for taking the show on the road. From directing the “optics” of events in small town cafes and big city arenas across the country, to sourcing confetti canons and union carpenters for hastily scheduled campaign stops, these masters of organization and collaboration are tasked with setting the stage – over and over again – for a candidate’s political success.

On a good day, the sound system performs flawlessly, the flags wave gently in the breeze, everyone keeps to the schedule, and the nightly news carries images of an enthusiastic crowd cheering a photogenic candidate on a wholesome and achingly nostalgic corner of Main Street USA. But unambiguously good days are few and far between on the road; it’s the hiccups, surprises, missteps and outright disasters that test the mettle of even the most battle-hardened advance teams.

What could possibly go wrong?

Imagine a week in the life of an advance team for a presidential candidate. A new poll unexpectedly puts a key state into play. Overnight, the campaign’s plans change. Instead of several carefully staged appearances in major cities in the East, the candidate will be heading to the Midwest on a bus tour of unfamiliar rural hamlets and rust-belt towns. While speechwriters and strategists scramble to craft messages that will resonate with this new audience, advance teams hop on red-eyes to scout locations, coordinate with volunteers and vendors, notify local and national press – and attend to the million and one details required to prepare the ground for the candidate’s whirlwind appearance.

The potential pitfalls – exponentially magnified when caught on cellphone video or by a national press photographer – are legion. If a candidate pans a local delicacy or mispronounces the name of a favorite son, that’s the sound bite that will play and replay long after the team has left town. Schedule an event that conflicts with the biggest high school football game of the season; inadvertently include a disgraced public figure in a photo op; deliver a too-long speech on a hot day only to have a couple of overheated supporters faint dead away – and suddenly everything that went right is completely overshadowed by the one thing that went wrong.

An ounce of prevention

Not surprisingly, advance teams spend a great deal of time and energy anticipating – and ideally avoiding – problems. Every advance team is haunted by images of failed political stagecraft. The infamous, ill-conceived tank ride often blamed for torpedoing the election prospects of one presidential candidate is often cited as a prime example of the stakes involved. That and countless other cautionary tales from campaigns large and small make up the legend and lore of professional advance teams.

Hence, these stressed- out, sleep-deprived “roadies” of the political world draft contingency plans and security blueprints for a dizzying array of venues and situations. They pore over weather reports and news feeds. They put together exhaustive schedules and endlessly revise them. Advance teams establish and maintain relationships with an army of contractors, reporters and supporters all over the country so they can deploy crucial eyes and feet on the ground at a moment’s notice. They scrutinize, analyze and take preemptive action…and then they wait for the other shoe to drop.

From offense to defense

In a political campaign, it’s a given that the other shoe will, at some point, drop. The weather will unexpectedly turn windy/sultry/wet. There’s a tornado warning. There’s a power outage. Crucial permits are locked inside a city hall that won’t re-open until Monday. News vans and VIPs are competing for too-few parking spaces. A big splat of barbecue sauce materializes shirt-front just as the candidate is about to take the stage.

This is when an advance team shifts from offense to defense. Move the entire event into the school gym to beat the impending downpour? Sure. Referee the traffic melee in the parking lot? No problem. Track down someone, anyone, with a key to city hall on the weekend? Figure out how to hook up the new emergency generator? Literally give the shirt off your back (see above barbecue scenario)? Yes, yes and yes. Because in the highly fluid, adrenaline-filled world of political advance teams, it’s all in a day’s work.

At Legistics, we understand and relish the demands of high-stakes collaboration in a high-pressure world. To find out more about how we can work with you to advance your firm’s most ambitious goals, visit