In age of ‘optics,’ how and where a candidate speaks as important as what is said
When choosing where to become the first major presidential candidate to announce his campaign this year, Sen. Ted Cruz selected Liberty University — sending clear signals to both Christian GOP primary voters and his potential rivals that the Texan plans to zero in on social and religious conservatives.
Expect others to pick their own symbolic locations as the campaign enters the beginning of the scripted period, when what consultants and talking heads call “optics” becomes paramount, and when, how and where a candidate speaks can be even more important than what is actually said.
“Candidates will strategically select locations that articulate the themes of the campaign and reinforce the issues and arguments that will serve as their rationale for running,” said Daniel Schill, associate professor in the School of Communication Studies at James Madison University.
Mr. Schill, author of “Stagecraft and Statecraft: Advance and Media Events in Political Communication,” said candidates usually kick off their candidacies in places that hold personal or symbolic meaning — or what he called “sacred sites.” They are also looking for spots that can help garner a lot of media attention or a large audience and help them drive home their campaign message.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, was scheduled this week to launch his campaign at Miami’s Freedom Tower, which was the site where many Cubans were first processed by the federal government and allowed into the U.S. — the final chapter in their escape from Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
The Florida Republican has milked his anticipated entrance into the race, scheduled for this Monday, making an announcement on Fox News that he will be making another about his political future in a couple of weeks. Mr. Rubio waited another few days before confirming last week that he was holding the event at Freedom Tower.
“To me, it’s a place that’s symbolic of the promise of America,” Mr. Rubio told the Miami Herald.
Not everyone goes big on the location. Sen. Rand Paul, who launched his campaign last week at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, the biggest hotel in the city and the official boarding house of the Kentucky Derby, chose a place that keeps him on his home turf but doesn’t reek of symbolism — though it gave him a convenient jumping-off point for a five-state announcement tour.
Still to come for all the candidates are countless speeches delivered from atop hay bails, humid high school gyms, pizza parlors and cramped living rooms.
But the kickoff is unique, and many candidates try to turn it into a major statement.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama opened his 2008 presidential run at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, following in the footsteps of President Abraham Lincoln.
“This location referenced Obama’s eight years in the Illinois legislature, linked his candidacy to Lincoln — who Obama quoted frequently in his remarks — and reinforced Obama’s campaign theme of uniting the country as Lincoln had done,” Mr. Schill said.
Some candidates get multiple shots at the announcement.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney entered the 2008 race at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, sporting a suit and tie and pointing to his record as a businessman and manager. Four years later he announced his second bid from a family farm in New Hampshire, with jeans and an unbuttoned shirt, as he sought to portray himself as a common-sense conservative.
“For Romney in 2008, we wanted to stress innovation and change in a state that was important to the candidate’s biography, so we chose the Henry Ford Museum in the state where Mitt was born and his dad was governor,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney. “In 2012 we were more focused on the geography of the race. We didn’t expect to win Iowa, so New Hampshire became key to our chances of winning the nomination. We planned to spend a lot of time there, and we did, starting on announcement day.”
In 2000 and 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona announced his presidential candidacies from New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary. Mr. McCain won the state in both nomination contests.
“He knew that was his best shot to break through, and he wanted to send a message that he considered it his most important early state,” said Stephen Duprey, who ran Mr. McCain’s New Hampshire operation. “It worked. People in New Hampshire like it when a candidate says to them that their state is so important, they want to announce here and intend to campaign like heck here.”
South Carolina’s another popular launch location, with thenTexas Gov. Rick Perry choosing it in 2012 and then-Sen. John F. Kerry using it in 2004, delivering his speech with the USS Yorktown as backdrop and Vietnam veterans surrounding him onstage.
Mr. Kerry went on to win the nomination but, in a twist of irony, lost the general election after coming under attack from a group of veterans called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Then-Rep. Michelle Bachmann chose Waterloo, Iowa, to announce in 2012, picking her birthplace in the key first caucus state to try to claim hometown hero status.
But she stepped on her own message when she claimed John Wayne as another well-known local. While the legendary Western and war films actor wasn’t born there, the serial killer John Wayne Gacy had in fact lived in the town with his wife as newlyweds.
She placed sixth in the Iowa caucuses, though she did manage to win the Ames straw poll much earlier.
Mr. Schull noted that lots of candidates also returned to their former elementary or high schools to make announcements.
Others have been more unorthodox, including former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, who rode the Washington, D.C., subway to the National Press Club, where he entered the 2008 Democratic primary race.
He also released a memorable YouTube video in which he quietly stared into the camera for more than a minute before walking to a nearly rock, picking it up, and nonchalantly shot-putting it into a pond. Then he turned and moseyed off as “gravel2008.us” popped up on the screen.
Sen. Ted Cruz commenced his GOP presidential campaign at Virginia’s Liberty University, reinforcing the importance of evangelical voters to him.