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Exit Interview: I Was Bernie Sanders’ Chief Advance Man

We talked to the man who planned all the logistics for Bernie 2016.

Marc Levitt. (Photo: Arun Chaudhary)

Presidential campaigns don’t plan themselves. For the months in which a candidate is on the road, wheeling from state to state, event to event, there’s an entire team of people whose job it is to get there first and make sure everything goes smoothly.

They find the places where the rallies happen and the hotel rooms where the candidate stays; they need to know which entrances the car will pull up to and who will be standing behind the candidate when the cameras close in tight. In this world, a perfect day is when no one notices that team has done their job—everything runs smoothly.

Marc Levitt was Director of Scheduling and Advance for Bernie 2016, which meant that if anything did go wrong, he would hear about it, quickly. This wasn’t his first time out: he worked advance on presidential campaigns for John Kerry and Barack Obama, too. Now back in civilian life, he told us about the inner workings of getting political people where they need to be.

Why don’t you start by explaining: what is advance work, exactly?

At every place that a presidential candidate goes and every event that he appears at, I think there’s a perception that these things just happen magically. When, in fact, they are the most planned and coordinated aspect of the campaign. I remember being blown away when in 2004 I joined the Kerry campaign, that, wow, every 10 seconds of John Kerry’s day was planned, really down to the minute.

What the advance team does is, they’re the group of people who, in coordination with the scheduling office at headquarters, they go in advance to a given city where the candidate is going to drop down and do some events. They serve as the tip of the spear for coordinating with local officials, venues and vendors to build the events, to build the rallies, to build the town halls, to set up the fundraisers, the meetings, whatever it is. That’s the basics of it.

How did you get into this line of work to begin with?

I was volunteering in South Florida, for an advance team that was doing a Kerry trip, in 2004. I did a few favors for one of the people on the advance team, and she called headquarters and by the next week, I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, working on the advance team. It was pure serendipity. The serendipity continued in 2008, when a lot of the people I knew from the Kerry campaign folded over and became part of the Obama operation. That’s how I got into it.

When you were a volunteer, what were you doing?

Oh gosh, well, back in those days, we didn’t have immediate and ready access to all the information in the world. The thing that I did that really endeared me to the person I was working for — I was the guy who went to Kinkos, or whatever it was, at 4 o’clock in the morning and made copies of the press clips. At time time, they were a couple hundred pages long. I had to be at Kinko’s at 4 a.m. to copy these press clips and deliver them to the hotel that John Kerry was staying at. That was honestly the main thing I did that got me on the road. It enabled this woman, who I still talk to every now and then, to sleep in, which for her was a pretty rare thing.

When was the first time you felt like you were in charge and on your own—when you were thinking, ok, it’s all on me to make this work?

That was literally the next week in Harrisburg. Depending on which job you take on the advance team, there can be no net. In my case, I was the RON, which can mean, depending on who you ask, “remain over night” or “rest over night”. It’s a military acronym. I was responsible for coordinating the hotel logistics for something like 130 traveling press, and 30 traveling staff. I had to figure out in a week’s time, how to make that work, with a Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Having never done it before and having very little guidance, I consulted a few people who were able to help me out, but, yeah, that was it. And it was abject chaos. I mean, I can’t tell you how badly I failed.

What happened?

Well, I didn’t really know what I was doing. These are totally novice mistakes. I had not coordinated with the motorcade person to figure out that the candidate was going to be arriving to a separate entrance from the staff. At some point, 30 some-odd people arrived in the building and had no idea how to get their keys. This happened in mid to late evening, when everyone on a presidential campaign is moving pretty quickly and everything is very harried. That failure of coordination just led to chaos. Everything ended up okay in the end, but that’s the sort of situation that not even weeks later I would have figured out how to control a little bit better.

And they kept giving you work?

Yeah, despite that. When you’re a Democratic campaign you just try to sniff out talent. There’s no off-cycle advance, so it’s very difficult to find people who do this on a regular basis and people who’ve cultivated the skills over the years. People come in and out of the business. You’re pretty dependent on young people who are sharp enough to figure it out after a short period of time, but there’s definitely a learning curve.

Levitt with the candidate. (Photo: Arun Chaudhary)

What are the stages of advance work, the different types of job you could have?

One of the nice things about advance is that it has a built in hierarchy that makes the organization of any given team pretty easy. The team has a lead, a press lead, usually somebody subordinate to the press person, called the P2. There’s a person who does site or multiple people who do site if you have more than one event. Let’s just say we’re at a high school gym. They’ll be sitting at a high school gym and working with the high school principal or the activities coordinator. They’ll work with that person, the vendor, Secret Service, custodial staff, all those sort of things. They’ll build all the rooms, make sure walking paths are logistically viable, and make sure that all the needs we have for a given site are covered. There are people who are subordinate, trainees to the site person, that go by the term S2.

Depending on whether or not you need it, there’s a crowd person. The crowd person is responsible for… everything involving the crowd, so ingress, coordinating with the Secret Service, making sure the crowd shows up. Sometimes there’s a subordinate crowd person, the C2. Then there’s the RON, which is the person who coordinates hotel logistics. There’s also the motorcade person, who deals with motorcade cars and getting the volunteers to do that. The motorcade person is also typically responsible for liaising with the field office, to get volunteers for the entire team. The lead is sort of the person who sets the agenda for the entire team and the single point of contact for headquarters to figure out what will happen on the trip.

It does sound very military.

It is. There’s no coincidence there whatsoever. It is a model that is borrowed from, at least as far as I know, that’s borrowed from the White House, which is—people’s public perceptions notwithstanding—it’s basically a military base. RON is a military acronym. The Secret Service operates like a quasi-military operation. The Secret Service has counterparts for all the various members of the team I just described. There will be Secret Service lead, a Secret Service press person, someone who is responsible for the site. A lot of the time, the site person doubles as the crowd person, although there are also different types of Secret Service agents who work on that. So, yeah, it is quasi-military, with a very real function.

What is the relationship between the Secret Service and the advance team? How does that work?

It starts again with their leads and their counterparts. On a campaign, the campaign staff, the advance sets the agenda for a given trip. They say we’re going to go do a rally. The Secret Service dutifully says, ok, let’s go do this rally. They make their own assessments and judgement about the security and they coordinate that with the campaign. The campaign may want to do this one thing, and the Secret Service will say, Oh my god, that is a death trap. There’s give and take there. It has to be worked out.

I always say this about the relationship between advance and the Secret Service. Advance’s goal is to expose the candidate as much as possible, and Secret Service’s goal is to cover them up. There’s that tension, but it’s not that hard to navigate. The Secret Service understands our goals, and advance understands Secret Service’s concerns and requirements. The lead and the lead on the advance team will work together, and then there are all these counterparts for the various components—the press agents will work work with the press lead, our site agents will work with their site agents to figure out the particulars of how any events or series of events is going to go.

When you’re planning for the candidate to arrive in a particular place, what are the things you need to think about and coordinate?

The first thing is: what are we doing in that city? You try to figure out what the schedule looks like. Are we there to talk to a newspaper’s ed board? Are we there to raise money? In Bernie’s case, it was almost never to raise money. We only had three or four terrestrial fundraisers; the rest was done on the web. You try to figure out, in cooperation with the local field office, what their goals are for the stay. It involves taking in a lot of input from both the political and field site about what it is we’re going to do.

We look for a venue. If you need to stay in a hotel, we find a hotel, and we work from there.

So when you’re looking at a place, what do you look for? What do you see and what are your concerns?

Let’s say that we’re going to do a rally in Lawrence, Kansas, because that’s where i think the university is. We’re looking for a venue that’s appropriately sized to the number of people we think we’re going to draw. In Bernie’s case, we had a pretty good sense, based on rule of thumbs compared with the number of email addresses we had, to get a sense of how many people in a given area were likely to show up to for an event. So we would trying to find a venue that matched that.

That, by the way, is incredibly difficult. You can’t always build a stadium in Lawrence, Kansas. You end up in these situations where you’re in a town and all there is is a high school gym, but you want to be able to accommodate as many people as possible, to sort of foment the revolution. That is the challenge. You’re looking for a venue that will meet all those sort of goals. In the case of the Bernie campaign, one of the key goals was getting as many people in front of Bernie as we could. So size of venue was the first and foremost consideration.

So if there’s just a high school gym, what’s your next step?

You have a couple of options from there. You can go to another town. There are all kind of reasons a venue can fall through. The largest venue in town could be busy. There could be weird things in the venue’s background, like they’re owned by the Klan, or something like that. There are crazy things that can render a venue unusable.

So you could move to another town. If you’re talking about Lawrence, Kansas, you’re not that far away from Kansas City, and you can count on some overlap between the audience for those two rallies. Alternatively, you can go to a high school and ticket the event or somehow limit RSVPs for the event. Almost invariably, with very few exceptions, we ended up with overflow crowds at our events. You have to hedge your bets with where you’re going to set up shop. Because you don’t how many people are going to show up, and one of the things that journalists love to report on is if there’s any empty space in the venue. It becomes an immediate tweet, or “is support for Bernie in Lawrence, Kansas, not what we thought it would be?”

So do you have to worry about the venue being too big?

I think at the end of the day you don’t. There’s way too much emphasis put on that by practitioners. The reality is, given how fast the news cycle moves these days, it’s usually a couple snarky tweets from journalists and then everyone moves on. In certain cases, the campaign or the candidate is invested in having a full house, and that plays a psychological role for folks internally.

You can look this up — the thing I cite to, to point out how little it matters, is in 2008, I was working on a rally for Obama that took place at the New Jersey Meadowlands. I think it’s a 22,000 person event venue, and less than 3,000 showed up. But nobody noticed. It was all but forgotten at the time.

Is the example you gave of the Klan venue something you really encountered?

No, no, no. But that said, a real story that we did encounter is a venue that was owned by someone who was a vigorous Donald Trump supporter and who, in their Facebook messages, made clear their allegiance to Trump. That’s not to say we wouldn’t go to that venue, but it would make us wary about what we were going to encounter there.

A Bernie rally. (Photo: Michael Vadon/CC BY 2.0)

What’s a perfect day feel like? And how often do things go not as planned, and what’s the first sign that, as you’re saying, it’s going to devolve into chaos?

We kept things pretty tight on the Bernie campaign. A perfect day is when nobody notices we were even there. That’s a perfect day—when nobody notices we’ve done our job. If I get a phone call, that means something has gone wrong. So no news is good news. I, as the boss, if my email is quite, that means things are okay.

What’s the first sign? It could be anything. One of the regular pitfalls is, and because our communications staff is in regular touch with journalists, we’ll hear very quickly if the press logistics are messed up. If somebody from the New York Times wasn’t able to check in quickly at the rally, that’s something I hear about that right away or for days. Generally speaking, our candidate was pretty chill with logistical things that went wrong. I very rarely heard anything bad about that. That comes down to the chillness of the candidate. But I’ll get the phone call or email pretty quickly if something has gone pear-shaped.

How many people did you have on your team, for the Bernie campaign? How many people were you coordinating to coordinate?

There are full timers and day raters. We term them consultants and pay them daily. I want to say 75 maybe, was what it maxed out at. For context, that’s what a primary campaign that goes national would look like. About half of that were consultants, and the rest were fully salaried. By the general election, you’re operating with something like 300 to 350 advance people, because you’re taking care of travel for the primary candidates and also for the spouse and big deal surrogates.

It takes a lot of folks to get these things done and get things done well.

Is a week typical to how long you would have to plan?

It varies, based on the campaign. Campaign vs. White House is also a material difference. In the White House, you have schedule visibility six months to a year out, sometimes years out. For foreign trips for that, you’ll get two weeks. For domestic there, you’ll get 7 to 9 days, generally. On campaigns you’ll generally have less time. Three or four days. But you have fewer things to worry about.

With Bernie, we would probably figure out exactly where we were going and what we were doing three days out on average. There’s a reason why we were able to do that this cycle, which would not have been possible in prior cycles. Internet penetration was radically higher this cycle than it had been and particularly among the people who stuck with our campaign. It meant we could hit send on an email and guarantee that a crowd would arrive. Even in 2008 for Obama, you wanted to have 6 or 7 days just for the news to percolate out that Obama was going to be some place. There was no such need this cycle. You could hit send with 24 to 48 hours and you would have 15,000 people show up.

What makes someone good at this job? When you’re looking for people to hire, what do you look for?

Poise is really important. Flipping out is not okay. And, you know, you get that now and then. Some people might be able to compensate for not being poised. But poise is really, really important.

What do you mean by poise?

You can’t raise your voice, you can’t run. Everything’s calm, nothing’s going wrong is the veneer you need to maintain. That’s even when things are in fact going wrong, because you’re the person responsible for fixing it.

Generally—you also need personability. I think the thing that advance teams are—things that advance teams are not giving enough credit for are the diplomatic tact needed to navigate the various forces at place. Any time you hit the ground, assuming your candidate is a Secret Service protectee, you’re going to be working with a venue, you’re going to be working with a hotel, you’re going to be working with local vendors. You’re going to be working with maybe several different people at the venue, of variable quality, and you’ll have to figure out who to get things done with. Diplomacy is actually a pretty important skill as well.

For you, after your first campaign, what convinced you to keep doing it the next cycle?

I cut my teeth politically in the Bush era. I was near certain going to be trying my best to make a Democrat win. And that was true in 2006, too. I worked briefly for a field program for a congressional candidate in 2006 in Florida. It wasn’t solely that I was dedicated to advance work so much as the Democratic cause. It just happened that I had this background in advance in 2004 that led naturally to the job I took in 2008. But it’s about political passion.

Not that you love planning so much.

No, not that I love planning so much. I think it’s enjoyable. There are aspects of it that are really sweet. What opportunity is a 23 going to have to travel to Kansas City, Missouri, or North Dakota. I got to see parts of the country that at age 23 I would never have a reason to go to. I was in Birmingham, Alabama, for a week working a John Edwards thing. I was in North Carolina. There were pretty sweet aspects to it. But I didn’t start college saying—I’m going to be an event planner. I mean, my college majors were philosophy and German. The fit was not necessarily natural.

Levitt with the Bernie bus. (Photo: Amanda Mansour)

You’ve worked for a few different candidates—does the job change depending on who you’re working for?

Sure. Absolutely. The principle, the candidate, sets the tone for the campaign. At a certain point, despite myself wanting to do the job in the way that I want to, in the way I think is best and most expert, I’ve got to defer to the candidate’s preferences. Bernie, early on, was fairly reluctant, I would say, to have too much in the way of advance staff. That was very different from Obama, who very early on said, we’re going to have a huge, professionalized advance staff.

Each candidate has different preferences for how they want information presented to them and how they want their days to go, things like that. You have to work all those considerations into how you schedule things, how you prepare a hotel, how you prepare a venue, how you prepare a clutch with local political people, how you prepare interviews and in what order. The candidate more than anything drives the significant differences you’d see across advance operations.

How much of an impact does the campaign budget have on what you can do?

The goal of these events was strategically speaking central to the campaign. You want to get as many people in the room as possible. You want to get as many email address as you can, and Bernie’s exposure, via the media, as broad as possible. So you can imagine—what an organization’s priorities would be, vis-a-vis a budget, given the goals.

If you think about what those events were as an investment, they were enormously fruitful. And there are ways of measuring that. I would get these clips every morning of what local TV stations covered our event in South Carolina and it would tell me, based on how much the equivalent ad buy was, for every 30 seconds. I could literally add up the monetary value of individual events to the campaign.

Does the advance staff get a certain budget to spend, or are there parameters? What are the budget guidelines?

I would say…circumstances change radically from city to city. If you’re going to be in New York City, and you need a hotel, that’s going to cost something very different than in Mason City, Iowa. There’s a lot of flexibility, I would say. Same thing goes—if you’re putting on a rally in New York City, that’s going to be a whole lot more expensive. It also depends on the venue. If you’re going to put on a rally at a convention center, convention centers are notoriously expensive. If you’re going to be doing an outdoor rally, there are all kinds of expenses that people don’t really think about — Port-a-Potties, more substantial sound. A lot of time you’ll end up in an arena that has in-house sound. If you’re in an outdoor venue, that you anticipate 30,000 people showing up to, you need to have some pretty serious speaker stacks to reach all of them.

Encompassing all of that, there’s a lot of variability in how much the events cost.

I saw that you were the Deputy Parade Director for President Obama’s first inauguration. I have to ask about that. How much is that the same as this and how much was it totally different?

Radically different. When you’re doing this stuff for the government, it operates at a very different pace. When you’re doing it for the President, it also operates under different constraints. The challenges associated with both are different. With doing the deputy parade director thing, for the inaugural committee, patience is a real virtue. Because things move glacially. You encounter for the first time—at least for me it was the first time—the full weight of government bureaucracy, creating challenges that you hadn’t encountered before. Everything always works out fine, but there’s no flexibility with certain things.

What’s an example of one of those challenges?

The National Park Service has a very, very constrained budget. Consequently, they are extremely protective over their resources around the National Mall. So, what does this mean? It means, in certain cases, there’s these weird pads that you have to put down to make sure there’s no damage to lawns. There are boxes that the Park Service will require we put around trees, to make sure the public doesn’t bump into them or knock them. Similarly the Secret Service, the protection they assign to the President is a lot more rigorous.

Right, I went to that swearing-in, and there were so many people. I don’t think I actually was on the National Mall anymore.

It was a large number of people. And some 50,000 of them got stuck in the tunnel, or whatever it was.

Oh, right the tunnel!

I thankfully was not responsible for that. But at the end of the day, who is responsible when there are so many cooks in the kitchen? A lot of the authority and responsibility is diffused for that kind of fuck up.

Are there things that you think people should understand about this work that they often misunderstand?

As much as the logistics are the prima facie, key aspect, the other thing that’s central to what we do, We are fundamentally about communicating. There’s this huge symbiosis between communications efforts and what we do on scheduling and advance. So, to give an example, over the course of the campaign, we switched around the things that we were doing visually and putting in front of people. They had different objections at different points.

Very early on it was mostly just Bernie placards. This was before we had our footing as a campaign. It became pretty clear that we were going to be raising money entirely online, so at a certain point I switched over all of our visuals—the banner, the podium sign—in particular the things that were going to be most visual to cameras, I switched that to our URL. It had a variety of purposes. Thankfully our URL contained Bernie’s name. One of things you’re concerned about early on in a campaign is name ID. You want to convey the name as much as possible. So thankfully the URL contained the name. We switched over to that, and then even later on, we switched over to “A Future to Believe In”.

It’s hard to describe, but until you can anchor the campaign a little better with a unified visual and messaging front, you have the potential for completely disparate operations in different parts of the country. Iowa is going to be a different campaign from New Hampshire. Some of that is by necessity, but there’s a sense in which introducing “A Future to Believe In” gave the campaign a unified feel. Because our events looked the same regardless where we were going.

One of the things we also do as a communications strategy — it’s obvious to people without being obvious what it’s about—we’re trying to make the guy look like a very popular person. So we put people behind him. Those people shout and scream and yell and whatever, and what’s it’s saying every time someone see that is: here’s a guy with a well of support. Every now it’s ok to have a town hall where people aren’t whooping and hollering. But if you ever have the displeasure of going back and looking at Jeb Bush’s town halls, there were people falling asleep and they were relatively sparse. If you think about the average consumer of these things visually—and visually is the way I would say we do the majority of our communication—they have like 8 seconds on a treadmill, or 30 seconds while their kids are screaming to see something on the local news. Those very brief impressions have a very definite impact, and we try to tailor what those impressions are going to be.

Do you pick the people who are standing behind the candidate? And how do pick them?

It depends on well coordinated the team is and what the nature of the event. I would say there’s no question that there’s an effort to shape that image. We have that image there for a reason, and there’s no question that there’s a desire to shape that image. To give an example of something you want to avoid, back in 2008, I think it was the night of the Indiana primary, Barack Obama had three dudes wearing all wearing Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts directly behind him, in the tight shot. That became the story for the following day. So you do try to craft that shot. You do pick them, and you distribute them…you know, as a Democratic campaign one of the goal is to make our head-on shot look like America, make it look like the party.

Never underestimate how much these events are stage managed. If you can think about a way we might stage manage it, we probably have or at some point we did, for better for worse.

So what happens now for you? What’s it like to be off the job? Would you do this again or are you totally done after this campaign?

Yeah, time will tell. There’s not a whole lot of upward movement for me professionally within the campaign world. We’ll see. Nobody would deny that it’s extremely punishing. It’s exhausting. Emotionally, it’s exhausting. It’s physically exhausting. I think I ate a full pizza three nights a week for six months. You’re dependent on really bad food, really terrible hours. I don’t know if I would repeat that. I do enjoy civilian life. I am glad to be home with my wife. I was separated from my wife for nine months—she was living in Washington, D.C., while I was mostly in Burlington. I’m glad to re-establish some normalcy.