Political Science Professor, David R. White, Shares His Observations of Presidential Campaign Events at Francis Marion University, South Carolina
One of the benefits of living in South Carolina, besides the favorable winter weather, is the chance to observe presidential candidates and campaigns up close and personal every four years. Yes, we get inundated with direct mail and too many campaign calls – one colleague documented 14 different campaign phone calls in the 48 hours before the Republican primary – but I live in an area of the state where it is not difficult to get a good view of candidates during their campaign stops. As someone who has studied presidential advance work, I take a particular interest in how each event is organized and staged.
A number of my Francis Marion University students and colleagues attended these events as well, many while working or volunteering for a presidential campaign. In the two weeks prior to the 2016 Republican presidential primary, we were able to observe in person Republican candidates Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, as well as Hillary Clinton’s husband and former President, Bill Clinton. Kasich, Rubio and Clinton held their events on Francis Marion’s campus.
The Trump event started things off on Friday night, February 5. The rally was in the Florence Civic Center, and it was the biggest crowd I have ever seen at a political event in Florence, with between 6,000 and 8,000 people. Opera and Elton John seemed to dominate the music blaring from the arena speakers before Trump, in dark business suit and Boehneresque tan, finally walked down a long-runway type stage to the podium where he would speak. It was an eclectic crowd, and many I spoke with were there simply to take in the “circus.” Trump’s one-hour talk can best be described as somewhere between a conversation and a ramble. He was interrupted by applause numerous times, but gladly responded to the audience’s shout outs and comments while still making sure to hit his key talking points. However, as evidenced by the stream of attendees observed departing, it lasted about 15 minutes too long. (And Trump’s braggadocio was in full swing during the following night’s televised debate, when he announced the size of the Florence crowd was 12,000. The Civic Center’s listed maximum seating capacity is 10,000 and a couple thousand empty seats suggest otherwise.) Still, Trump deserves credit for attracting a crowd at least three times larger than all the people who attended every other local presidential campaign event combined.
During the Trump event it was fun to chat with several Francis Marion students and former students, including a couple alums who were volunteering for Trump. The university chapter of College Republicans was there in force, and I saw its members at several other campaign events as well, including the following Thursday when Bush, now invoking the smart, casual look, visited a local diner. (During his previous visit two months earlier to a barbecue joint, he wore suit and tie, sans the jacket.) I entered the venue and it was packed, as planned, so that the arrival of every additional new person forced others to readjust their viewing positions. Having heard Bush once already, I decided to wait outside. After the requisite presidential candidate black SUVs arrived, I snapped a nice photo of Bush greeting a university colleague and then watched as he entered the diner followed by our state’s senior U.S. Senator, Lindsey Graham, and question-shouting ABC political reporter Jonathan Karl, the one member of the national media whom I recognized.
Later that day, after the Bush event, a Kasich event scheduled for my campus was moved from a small auditorium to a bigger one, and I wondered to myself if this might be a mistake. Kasich was guaranteed a standing room only crowd in the first location, and I was skeptical he could fill the second auditorium. I was reminded of four years earlier when then Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry visited Florence on the same Tuesday preceding Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary. Romney’s event was at the Civic Center, but in a very large banquet room (unlike Trump’s.) The room was far too big for that day’s crowd, and the result was a front page, above-the-fold New York Times photo with a caption that observed “. . . the crowd seemed dwarfed by the setting.” But Kasich’s team (which included another former student who also serves in the state legislature) proved prescient. Nearly every seat was taken at his town hall and the large media contingent he had gained after the New Hampshire results had adequate room to operate and capture the backdrop that consisted of the American flag, a giant FMU emblem, and about 30 students on stage. That is, until Kasich decided he would rather talk in front of the stage than on the stage. (So much for that backdrop!) As Fox News’s John Roberts conducted a live feed during the event, the candidate, wearing a light jacket, dress shirt and gray slacks, touted his experience and success both in Ohio and Washington, DC. The crowd was pleasant and seemed receptive. However, Kasich probably should have paid a couple of the Midwestern transplants decked out in their Ohio State gear a few bucks to start clapping at his applause lines because the audience was not easily biting.
Two days later, former President Bill Clinton came to campus to campaign for Hillary Clinton. I was told that 2,000 people RSVP-ed online so I began waiting to enter a couple hours before the event. Standing in line with me and my spouse was a student currently taking my U.S. Government class. When the doors opened, she and her friend were fortunate to get seats in the first row of elevated bleachers that had been set up stage left.
Consequently I was able to capture them in photos I took of Clinton as he was speaking. In the end, fewer people actually attended, but with the help of a skillful advanceman, our University Center became a typical, standing room only crowd of 450-650. One university student who was volunteering for the Clinton campaign had the honor of introducing the former president along with Jim Hodges, a former governor of our state. Dressed in a suit and tie and doing a good job of not reading his notes, the student explained why supporting Hillary was so personal to him. Introducing a former president was a huge moment for this student, and the audience held its collective breath as he eventually, successfully, introduced Governor Jim Hodges and President Bill Clinton.
Having seen an awful photo of him in the news, I thought Clinton looked good, although his dark suit was ill fitting. And he is still a wonderful speaker, hitting his talking points in an easy conversational manner that did not sound like a speech. I also really appreciated that he mentioned, if only for a moment, my university’s namesake, Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. This stood in stark contrast to Kasich, whose less planned and polished talk had its own charm, but who carelessly admitted that he knew nothing about the university where he was speaking.
The Rubio event, held two days later in the early afternoon, was at Francis Marion’s Performing Arts Center which is located in downtown Florence. It is a glorious facility that one would never expect to be located in our small city.
Rubio packed the floor seats, and I found myself in the second row because of a lack of VIPs (or was I a VIP?) This event reminded me more of a traditional campaign stop. A four piece band played a number of tunes to entertain the crowd, and a variety of people came out on stage and briefly spoke before Rubio did. The latter included the local Republican Party Chair, a county council member, and two members of South Carolina’s U.S. congressional delegation, Representative Trey Gowdy and Senator Tim Scott. Serving as a backdrop were several dozen people, including a few of my students. One of them is the head of the College Republicans and an actual volunteer for Rubio. I chuckled to myself as I recalled seeing him on stage for Kasich and in the seats behind Trump. He was certainly making the most of his political opportunities. Rubio, dressed in a dark business suit, spoke and answered questions from the audience clearly and confidently (even the eye-rolling ones), his robotic tendencies on hiatus for at least one day.
The Cruz event, in the early evening and on the other side of town, had a megachurch quality to it. Video screens, showing Cruz or his supporters talking, hung on the wall on each side of the small stage, which was facing a semicircle of hundreds of mostly occupied chairs. A prominent local pastor welcomed the crowd, followed by a local state representative (who also is the pastor’s son-in-law.) Unfortunately for the state representative, he was told to speak for a minute or two when the campaign really needed him to stall for more than five. It made for some awkward moments, with the crowd standing then waiting, and waiting, but eventually Cruz surfaced in a button down-white shirt, blue blazer, and jeans that were far too skinny, according to a university colleague who texted me from a seat near the front. Cruz is dynamic and played well with this crowd, but it was around the time he named the third or fourth federal government agency that he planned to eliminate once he became president (IRS, Energy, Education, ???) that I wondered how a guy who graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law could actually believe what he was saying. However, most people in the crowd did not appear to share this doubt, and at various moments during his talk, different groups of supporters stood up to applaud his comments and convictions.
Ben Carson was the last Republican candidate to visit, and he arrived the day before the primary (and a day after Bush made his third trip to the area). Located in the same room as Romney’s event four years earlier, Carson’s set-up was very similar to Cruz’s, sans the video screens. The room was nearly as crowded as Cruz’s too, but it seemed more low key and less angry, just like the man himself. Sometimes appearing out of place (if not pleasant) during televised debates, Carson was really in his element with this group and format. His security appeared second in size only to Trump’s. Dressed in a dark business suit, Carson chatted freely about his faith, his vision, and his hopes, including what he perceived as very logical (and sometimes self-evident) arguments about life, government, and American society. He also was king of the understated one-liner, several at which I found myself chuckling. When it was over, like every other candidate I had observed during the previous two weeks, he headed towards the crowd to shake hands, sign autographs, and take selfies.
By the time the Republican primary was over, I had seen seven Republican presidential candidates (including Carly Fiorina) and Bernie Sanders, who visited Florence back in September. At the time I had considered the Sanders event, which consisted of several hundred people sitting on folding chairs in the same arena as Trump’s rally, a success (even with three-fourths of the empty seats draped off by giant black curtains.) This was, after all, red state South Carolina. When I realized that the stage was populated with some of my students and former students, I waved towards it. Like my own daughters, the students acknowledged my presence only covertly. One of the speakers, besides noted public intellectual Dr. Cornel West and Sanders, was another Francis Marion graduate and former student from a decade earlier. She explained why she was supporting Sanders, and I later saw her featured in a Sanders television campaign ad. Talking about the extent of inequality in the United States and how he was going to change that as president, Sanders came off as very genuine, and genuinely wrong to some, but there were no boos or public protesters. (They usually come from out of state, anyway.) As with Trump’s event five months later, some people were there simply “to check out the opposition,” as one man admitted to me.
Two days before the South Carolina Democratic primary on February 27, the opportunity to see one last presidential candidate presented itself. Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at 2:15 p.m. at a church in downtown Florence.
The local newspaper reported that doors opened at 12:45 p.m., which is when I arrived. I immediately joined the long line that greeted me but was moving nowhere, and I had no idea whatsoever if I would get in. Having studied politics and having lived in South Carolina for over 15 years, I was not surprised by the demographic make-up of this line. Every other campaign audience of which I was a member, including the Sanders crowd, was overwhelmingly white. This line was overwhelmingly African-American, and not particularly young either (like me!). As I conversed with a number of my fellow Clinton audience members, a local television reporter was walking the line and fishing for interviews. Upon admitting that I taught political science at Francis Marion, the reporter admitted that she felt like she had hit the jackpot. (Well, sure, if she’s playing penny ante.) Not always my most confident before television cameras, I recalled a campaign interview four years earlier when my heart beat so hard and fast that I was certain viewers could see my shirt move. However, in this case I thought that I did okay, talking about turnout in the Democratic primary and how important a part the African-American vote would play in it for each candidate. Still, you just have to pray that the person in charge of editing your interview doesn’t make you sound too much like an idiot.
Any angst that I had about the interview or getting into the church dissipated as the line began to move and disappeared as I emptied my pockets before going through the lone metal detector. The church was larger than I expected yet intimate. It was also elegant yet simple. It had tall stained glass windows, a vaulted ceiling over the nave, and hard, wooden pews. As with most of the campaign events I had attended, camera crews were set up in the back, but in this case two floodlights brightened the pulpit and the people in the choir seats. (Since they did not sing, I don’t know if they were the actual church choir.) Having felt a little claustrophobic in my second-row VIP seat at the Rubio event, I decided to stand in the back, which really was not that far from the pulpit. And then I waited, along with everyone else, and waited. Somewhat surprisingly, up to this point, every single presidential campaign event I had attended had pretty much started on time. When the Secretary became an hour late, I texted a colleague also attending that Clinton wasn’t allowed to be this late unless she actually became president. Meanwhile people shifted in the pews, some wondering if they had time to hit the restroom before Clinton’s arrival.
At 3:30 p.m. and after a prayer, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spoke and introduced U.S. Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey and Secretary Clinton. With both Gross and Clinton seated behind him, Booker spoke intensely and movingly about how he had been personally affected by gun violence. He then introduced Clinton, whose purple outfit nicely complemented the orange t-shirts of the choir (if you were a Clemson fan). Her focus was gun violence and gun control, but she turned to other themes that also might rally African-American voters to her, like recent state restrictions on voting accessibility. As with most other candidates, when Clinton was done speaking, I was able to move forward and get close enough to take terrific photos. (A Huma Abedin sighting early in the event made it a little extra special.) Such proximity confirmed that Clinton’s Secret Service detail was extensive. As I stood several layers of people back from Clinton, one of the many agents protecting her jockeyed for position between me and the masses in front of me.
The Republican and Democratic presidential primary campaigns in South Carolina are over now. During the last few weeks, both the candidates and their campaigns were intense as they tried to do their best to rally South Carolina voters to the voting booth and to their side. In the process, the candidates attracted a variety of my former students and prompted a number of my current students to begin their first forays into politics.
As easy as it is to joke about the candidates, after observing them I can’t help but admire their effort. Campaigning is hard work. Giving the same pitch over and over is hard work. Smiling for a thousand selfies is hard work. Asking for people’s votes and never really knowing if they actually will vote for you is hard work. South Carolina and I thank you, presidential candidates, for all your hard work.
David R. White is Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina.