The (Almost) Exciting Life of (Almost) Presidential Advance (Part 1)

Jesse Cornett

I realize that during the course of the presidential campaign, not knowing whether writing about my experience was allowed, I made a reference or two here and there about working for the Kerry-Edwards campaign here at Blue Oregon, without actually naming the campaign, except once, when I posted late in the evening (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).  In the waning days of the campaign I learned from a couple other advance staffers that they had to sign agreements saying they wouldn’t write about the experience (while they were still in the experience, at least).  I had no such agreement in place.

Even without an agreement I decided to wait.  I couldn’t imagine explaining to a poor, overworked field staffer how I had time to write about my experience when they were so constantly overwhelmed and working so hard to elect John Kerry (it would have been hard enough to explain how we often got paid more, got rental cars, and stayed in nice hotels).  As it turns out advance work was not too stressful.  Don’t get me wrong, there were some short nights, long days and stressful moments, but all in all, things weren’t so bad. 

For some reason, I didn’t take notes to help me with these posts, so most of what I am about to write comes from memory (though I started putting them together immediately after the election).  I’ll try to get it all out so I can forget about it forever and have Blue Oregon to reference if I want to remember it all down the road.  What you’ll see here is a series of four posts, almost an after the fact journal talking about my experience.

As a member of the National Press Advance team, the work wasn’t ever glorious (even if it sounded so), but it was fast-paced, critically important, and I loved it.  I had been interested in advance work for a while, but didn’t call the campaign until after Sen. John Edwards, who my friends will recall, I enthusiastically supported during the primary, was named as the vice-presidential nominee.  Every trip that I was assigned to was with Senator Edwards.

At the end of the day, I was one of two people – and because of how late I joined the campaign I was always the number two person – in charge of press logistics.  I wasn’t the spokesperson or anything sexy, just the P2, as I was called.  My job was to do everything to help make life easier for the press, both the travelers (15-25 traveled with Edwards at any given time – that number quadrupled for John Kerry) and the locals.  The most important aspect of press advance is making sure there is a high speed internet line, so that the traveling press can file stories immediately after events (I’ll write more about the challenges of this aspect in future posts).  After that there were lots of small things I was responsible for – ordering food for traveling press, making signs pointing the way to everything that wasn’t right in front of the press’ eyes, and even some signs to things that were right in front of their eyes.  And, most importantly, making time to help on other aspects of the trip, embracing the "advance team" mentality was key to overall success. cofounder Jeff Alworth told me recently he looked forward to my “insider” view.  I was far from an insider.  In fact by the time that I got to town there were already firm rumors about the visit.  Lots of other people knew lots of things about the campaign that you do not (including field staffers, though we never clued them into our semi-uninformed status about the overall campaign).  That being said, I hope you’ll enjoy my posts anyhow!

When Senator Edwards visited Oregon as a presidential contender late last year, his entourage included one staff member, a fundraiser from Seattle who drove down for the trip, and, well, me, who volunteered to drive them around in a car that I had to borrow because mine was not suitable.  My how times changed (and I wonder how quickly it changed/changes back).

Now that it’s all over (and after nearly two months of being away from home), I can’t tell you how excited I was to be able to finish up my last rally in time to be in Oregon in time for Election Day.  My time away, however, was a tremendous experience and I only hope that I have the opportunity to do it again in the future.  From the first day that I left home (the last day of the Republican National Convention), until the waning moments of my tenure as an advance staffer, I’ll truly never forget it.  My earliest experience was flying into Columbus, Ohio and almost immediately driving to Springfield, where John Kerry and John Edwards were preparing for a midnight rally, coinciding with the end of the Republican Convention.  My appearance at that rally was noted by several Oregonians who called me and talked to me while I was still there (courtesy of live C-Span coverage), and later at Blue Oregon in comments.


My first trip was actually to Chillicothe, Ohio, a town of about 20,000.  After waiting for weeks to get the call from the campaign, I didn’t really care where I was sent, I was just happy to go.  The logistical challenges of this trip were great.  Our team hit the ground on the Thursday night prior to Labor Day, meaning that we had only one business day to get crucial pieces of business done.  Further, Chillicothe hosts one of the largest Harley Davidson Rallies in the country, and it’s every Labor Day weekend, meaning that we couldn’t get a hotel room within an hour of the town.  Next, no team member had a campaign credit card, meaning every purchase we made we either had to find someone to bill it directly to the campaign, or have a credit card number phoned in.  Finally, the best place in town for the rally was in the middle of the street, in front of the county courthouse, and even though gates opened at 10:30 a.m., not a single piece of setup could occur prior to 5 a.m.

I felt like our job was to turn water into wine and we’d been dropped off in the middle of a desert - and I loved it!  When Senator Edwards arrived, the event went off without a hitch.  Five minutes after his motorcade departed, though, it began to rain much harder than this Oregonian is use to seeing.  Had the rain come any earlier, the memories wouldn’t be so fond.  Make wine we did!

Though every trip was great (well, most of them), there was no better experience for me that Chillicothe.   Chillicothe’s Mayor is a strong Democrat and you knew who the party boss was walking into town.  Everything went through them.  Coming from Oregon, I thought this was a nice, yet odd, aspect that I was unfamiliar with.  Without these two and their support our event would have been much harder.  Knowing who owns every building within camera shot of an event is something that couldn’t be easily accomplished by an advance team (any unfriendly building might unfurl a huge Bush banner at just the wrong time, meaning that becomes the picture from the event instead of actual event pictures).  This and other pieces of information and support were invaluable.  When we closed up shop on the final day it would have seemed rude to not join the mayor’s staff for beer at the local tavern.  It almost seemed rude leaving Chillicothe, even though the Harleys were gone and we could have stayed in town that night.

Chillicothe, as small as it was, received a visit by George W. just four days after our trip.  In fact they announced it right after it was announced Edwards was going to be there, which despite their best efforts didn’t stop us from getting the lion’s share of the media for a few days. Before the election was over, John Kerry would also visit Chillicothe, a town which prior to Edwards hadn’t had such a notable visit since 1996.

After one’s first trip, unless you are a known factor to the campaign, it’s apparently standard procedure to put people “down,” and wait to hear if there is any negative scuttlebutt about that person’s capabilities.  I didn’t know this until the time I actually got the call sending me home.  So, after a week of working hard and helping to pull off a stellar visit, I was heading home.

My second post will be about my first homecoming and getting back out on the road again.  Stay tuned!

Read Part 2 -- Read Part 3 -- Read Part 4 -- Read Part 5

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