Tricks of the Trail

How Hollywood-style stagecraft is shaping the presidential campaign

When Barack Obama visited here Jan. 6 for a campaign stop at Pinkerton Academy, TV viewers watched what looked like a capacity crowd of his supporters.

But what the cameras missed was Obama's advance team coming to the private school's gym earlier in the day and moving the bleachers closer to the center of the room, creating the illusion of a packed audience.

Though press reports touted a crowd of more than 2,000, the Derry Fire Department had counted 1,800 people in the gymnasium, which is capable of holding 3,200, Chief George Klauber says. Behind the seating, a gaping space remained open — unlike a Hillary Clinton rally that same day, where 3,500 supporters jammed into another high school gym 14 miles away.

In the brutally competitive 2008 presidential race, there's no measure too small for seizing an advantage. And though Hollywood's prime role in politics might be fundraising and the occasional celebrity endorsement, its influence also is evident in the stagecraft that has long been a staple of the campaign process.

"The ability to take a dramatic moment between two people — a candidate and a potential voter — and allow the world to watch through the medium of television, and now the Internet, turns it into a filmed drama for a mass audience," says Joshua King, a public relations executive and former Clinton administration strategist who NBC News' Brian Williams once called "the father of the modern backdrop."

That drama might start at a campaign event in Charleston, S.C., or Detroit, with candidates stumping for votes in much the same way Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt did back in the day.

But today's media landscape has amped up the stakes. The cameras, whether manned by professionals or untold numbers of amateurs with camcorders and video-enabled cell phones, follow the candidates everywhere.

"When the only competition for voters was three networks and the morning newspaper, a candidate could afford to be a little more dry in his presentation," says Dan Schnur, a Republican political strategist and professor at UC Berkeley. "When you're going up against 500 cable channels and an infinite amount of Internet sites, you need to put on a show."

At Pinkerton Academy, a large Obama sign proclaims a simple message — "Change" — while such pump-the-crowd music as Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business" and U2's "Beautiful Day" blares from the speakers. Even the gym's scoreboard blinks Home 20, Visitors 08 — 2008. What will appear on camera is a boisterous campaign appearance for the candidate that will then find its way into the media, supporting the conventional wisdom that Obama is on the move.

Klauber, whose sole concern was safety, says he understands that the candidate's team was playing to television.

"For the TV, they want that one second where they can show the crowd up there and show there's lots of people," he says. "They don't want blank spots."

It's like this all over the campaign trail, wherever Obama or other well-financed and media-savvy candidates such as Mitt Romney, John McCain and Clinton travel. The setting might be New Hampshire or Michigan or any of the other primary states, but scripting, setup and production values remain key. The best campaigns treat every event like it will be seen by millions, and plan accordingly.

"In front of the lens, the candidates are the actors, the crowd are the extras and the New Hampshire town is the stage set," King says. "Behind the lens, the advance man is the director, the photojournalists are the cinematographers and those who package the newscasts are the editors. Campaigns take on the role of set designers, taking care to fill the frame with visual elements to further the message — a carefully placed flag, a kid with a sign, a glowing, lit banner with a poll-tested message."

But the preparations don't have to be high-tech or sophisticated to get the message across.

At the Windham Center School cafeteria/ auditorium, GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, with supporter Chuck Norris, stages a cozy event that highlights the religious right's candidate in as country a setting as can be arranged in the Boston suburbs that make up southern New Hampshire: a chowderfest.

Huckabee's setup is simple: Five chairs sit on the stage above five smallish campaign signs and a black background that probably isn't well-lit enough for the cameras situated on a press riser in the back of the room.

And there's the chowder.

"It's down-home, it's New Hampshire, it's the insurgent candidate," King says. "The quaintness of this whole thing plays into the more casual Huckabee message."

TV moments tend to define and stick with the candidates, though it's never clear when there will be one. You never know when a TV report or an Internet clip will break through, but their impact is undeniable: The outcome of the New Hampshire primary might have turned on Clinton's emotional response to a passerby's near-throwaway line in a Portsmouth, N.H., diner.

One wild card is the Internet, which is rewriting the rules for campaigning. It has the ability to help a candidacy catch fire, like Howard Dean's Web strategy, which transformed him from small-state governor to national candidate. This time around, it's GOP candidate Ron Paul who has used the Web and user-generated content to make a splash.

But it also can wreck campaigns, the most notable being Virginia Sen. George Allen's, whose videotaped "macacca" moment on the trail derailed his 2006 re-election bid.

Then there's Obama Girl, a slick music video that circulated online featuring a scantily dressed model proclaiming her love for the Illinois senator. The Obama campaign had nothing to do with the video, which was seen tens of millions of times on the Web. The sexy subtext couldn't have pleased the campaign, though, on the other hand, it didn't seem to have hurt Obama either.

"Campaigns are about control — control of the message — but the Internet is a sort of anarchy," says Alan Schroeder, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. "Those two philosophies really clash."

For many years, the standards for campaigns were set by such classic TV ads as Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," from his 1984 run, or "The Man From Hope," the 1992 Clinton campaign docu made by filmmakers Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Both used their candidates' most telegenic and moving public appearances and speeches.

Today, with constant cable TV hits, blogs and Internet video, there's even more pressure to make sure the setting is right, every time.

"The campaigns make these into media spectacles that show well on television, will be splashy, and build a lot of attention and be very engaging," says Shawn Parry-Giles, a communications professor at the University of Maryland. "It's a central part of the campaign, and the candidates who do it tend to do well."

On this grand stage, the candidates themselves have a huge part to play. Reagan said at the end of his presidency that he couldn't believe anyone who hadn't been an actor could do the job. Today's candidates at the very least know that, from the beginning of the campaign, they have to look presidential.

"What they're really doing is acting, playing a part. It goes beyond standing up and talking to a crowd, which is a very natural thing for a politician to do," Schroeder says. "It is almost that they have to assume a character when they present themselves, and they are really good at it. They have to have the skills of an actor."