Leibovich notes that, “while campaign events are largely stage-crafted, the frenzied flesh-pressing that candidates engage in afterward offers something more raw and unpredictable. …. rope-line encounters offer bits of drive-by intimacy amid the production.”
That’s what campaigning is all about to me, the chance for voters to meet candidates, to look them in the eye, to decide if they really care and to determine their measure as a man (or as a woman.) Of course, this possibly antiquated vision of politics was formed during the early 1970s, when I drove Georgia’s rural 6th district with my dad, stopping at every gas station to meet and shake the hand of the person who ran it.
Our handshaking activities included going to the Ford factory in Atlanta during the 5 a.m. shift change after having lost the election the night before to shake the hands of those who had (or had not) supported my father. I can even remember telling an audience during a roast of my dad that one of my adolescent wishes had been for our family to go into a Chick-Fil-A without my father greeting everyone behind the counter with a handshake and a “Glad to meet you, I’m Newt Gingrich,” (I never was asked to roast him again.)
Running for office is often thought of as a complex strategy involving advertising buys and Web site hits, but in the end it’s about individuals making personal decisions about who they think will best lead our nation.
“You can learn a lot about the state of a campaign from its rope lines, and about the style of the person running,” notes Leibovich. “There is a giddy celebrity vibe on the Obama rope lines, with the candidate darting along…. he is a finger-pincher, spreading memories in half-second increments — about 20 voter touches per 30 seconds, on average.
“Mrs. Clinton lingers, chats and signs her first name… Her supporters cling to her and urge her not to quit….
“Mr. McCain invites respectful distance…his war injuries make it difficult for him to extend his arms. He moves in close, making earnest eye contact while shaking hands. His approach is dutiful, like a Boy Scout mowing a lawn.”
While Leibovich focused on the “rope-liners themselves, with arms and fingers extended, their eyes bugged and sometimes tearful,” rather than the candidates. It is the candidates that are more interesting to me.
“Mr. Obama is at best lukewarm to rope lines, his aides say, but he has learned to soldier through them…his chief primary opponent, Mrs. Clinton, is a rope-lining dynamo,” according to Leibovich, while as noted earlier, McCain’s approach is similar to a boyscout mowing a lawn.
President Ford, when talking to journalist Tom DeFrank, contrasted Bill Clinton’s love of in-person engagement with that of John F. Kennedy. “John was great, but all John had was the press.” Mr. Ford said. “He was still and elitist. He didn’t like the rope line.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter if the candidate likes the rope lines; it’s whether the rope lines like the candidate. But we all know it’s hard to like those who don’t like us, and the candidates might want to keep that in mind.