Working The Rope Line

On Saturday, the NY Times had an interesting story comparing the differences between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain on the rope line at campaign events. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be up at the front at a rally and been one of the brave souls who jostles for the opportunity to shake the candidate’s hand or try and get a picture taken with the candidate, you know the excitement of moment when you the candidate connects with you. Or the dissapointment of being passed by for the person next to you.

It’s impossible for candidates to connect with every person on the rope line, but some candidates are more intune with the importance of making the effort, as the NY Times reports:

You can learn a lot about the state of a campaign from its rope lines, and about the style of the person running. There is a giddy celebrity vibe on the Obama rope lines, with the candidate darting along. He is less of a hugger or a hand-shaker than he is a finger-pincher, spreading memories in half-second increments — about 20 voter touches per 30 seconds, on average. He rarely stops for autographs (his aides collect items and Mr. Obama later signs them for the aides to return).

Mrs. Clinton lingers, chats and signs her first name — on a Krispy Kreme box, construction gloves and a “Mrs. President” Girl Scout patch (one night alone in Kentucky last week). Her supporters cling to her and urge her not to quit.

Mr. McCain invites respectful distance. It is rare to see people lunging over barriers for him, nor will he reach back: 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.

It’s an important aspect of a campaign, I feel for supporters who venture out to campaign rallies to have that opportunity to connect with the candidate, even ever so briefly. In ’04 working for the Kerry campaign, I had many opportunities to watch Kerry connect on the rope line. He would, as Clinton does, linger, chat and pose for pictures with supporters. Sometimes much to the chagrin of his staff who were waiting the in the wings to whisk him off to the next event.

Unlike Clinton, Obama “is at best lukewarm to rope lines, his aides say, but he has learned to soldier through them.”  Explaining perhaps, a bit of the elitist meme that seems to be sticking with Obama, as time goes by.

Hillary Clinton, the NY Times reports, “is a rope-lining dynamo, a penchant she may have acquired from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, the all-time rope-lining king. Mr. Clinton’s willingness to shake every last hand — or engage every last heckler — was legendary.”

The willingness to engage and connect with voters, is ever so important, in my opinion. And that I think explains why so many Clinton supporters are willing to hang on with her through this long primary season. She’s put herself on the line, literally and connected with her supporters. And now those supporters are hanging on to give her the impetus to keep fighting despite the calls from her opponent’s supporters that it is time for her to go.

Barack Obama could take a few lessons from Hillary Clinton on how to work the rope line. If indeed he does become our nominee, it is clear he will need to do a better job connecting with all those voters who connected more deeply with Clinton and chose her at the voting booth, instead of him.

As I’ve said here many times, Hillary Clinton listens to her supporters, she listens to the needs of the voters. I’ve been on the rope line and had the opportunity to have my few moments with Hillary before she moved on to the person next to me. And if there is one thing I am certain of, she heard every word I said — she listened.  

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About Pamela Leavey

Pamela Leavey is the Editor in Chief, Owner/Publisher of The Democratic Daily as well as a freelance writer and photographer. Pamela holds a certificate in Contemporary Communications from UMass Lowell, a Journalism Certificate from UMass Amherst and a B.A. in Creative Writing and Digital Age Communications from UMass Amherst UWW.

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10 Responses to Working The Rope Line

  1. Frenchdoc says:

    How very revealing. And I’ve seen it personally last year when I was at the NEA representative Assembly and most of the Dem candidates addressed the crowd (only Huckabee had the guts to show up for the Republicans).

    Obama kinda bombed that day. Clinton was definitely the best on substance and on working the crowd. Kucinich talked all about Iraq (this was a crowd of teachers, for Pete’s sake) while his wife worked the crowd. And Edwards was lame… this was the event that started my switch from Edwards to Clinton… and Obama proudly admitted later in his FoxNews interview that he had taken some heat from the teachers’ unions… it was obvious in Philly that day, that he didn’t connect.

  2. Frenchdoc

    I think it really has to be daunting for the candidates in some ways, all those people pushing and proding and reaching for you. Like rock stars and celebrities.

    I remember in NH, right before the primary in ’04, standing back and watching Kerry spend nearly an hour after a big event, making sure he spoke to everyone waiting. It was a moment for me, as a Kerry blogger where I got that people just knew that he would be our nominee and they all wanted to connect with him. I never understood the elitist claims about him, because I was at quite a few events in both CA and NH where I saw him taking that time to connect.

  3. Obama Fan says:

    Connecting with voters is a must. People have to feel that the candidate is approachable and someone they can relate to. Working the rope line is a very easy way to do this and it gets good TV coverage as well so people can see that you are involving yourself with the crowd.

  4. atdleft says:


    Good catch. I’ve seen Hillary Clinton in person twice, both times in Las Vegas during the Nevada Caucus… And I saw Bill Clinton in person three times, two being the same Las Vegas events and one here in Orange County, CA, just before the California Primary. All three times, I was amazed at how personable both Bill & Hillary Clinton were. They happily autographed books, campaign signs, t-shirts (even ones that people were wearing!!), and much more. They both lingered along the ropes to listen to people tell them their personal stories, and neither ever hesitated to answer questions.

    This stood in stark contrast to the two times I saw Barack Obama in person, once in San Diego for the State Democratic Party Convention and once at an Obama Campaign event in Santa Barbara. Both times, Obama delivered a great stump speech. But afterwards (both times), Obama seemed to hurry his way along the ropes to get to whatever over appointment his scheduler had planned for him.

    Even though I had already switched to Hillary by the time I volunteered for her in Nevada, seeing her connect with so many people and talk candidly about the issues we cared about just deepened my conviction that I was making the right choice by supporting her. No electifying stump speeches or slick ad campaigns or catchy YouTube videos can ever replicate the effect of a one-to-one connection. That’s how Hillary has been able to survive this campaign, and win more votes despite everything that’s been thrown at her.

  5. Alegre says:

    I’ve shaken Hillary’s hand a few times and each was as electrifying as the last. And on May 7th when my 7 year old daughter and I attended the Generations of Women event in DC, my little girl got to meet her and I don’t think there’s ever been a prouder momma. One future president meeting another!

    You’re right Pamela – Hillary takes the time to meed as many people as she can on those rope lines, even taking the time to remind folks to take off their name tag before a friend snaps a picture of them with her. Bill may be a force of nature when you see him speak in person and his interest in meeting you is genuine. Hillary’ seems more low key but just as genuine – you know she cares and is listening to you when you offer up words of encouragement etc.

  6. Blame it on the handlers? If she showed the same person to the world in the early campaign that she does now, this really would have been locked up back then as planned.

  7. Darrell

    Blame it in part perhaps on the handlers and in part on the media.

  8. atdleft

    Great to hear your stories of meeting both of the Clinton’s here. Thank you. The event I attended here in L.A. and met Hillary at was what sold me. She’s definately got a knack for listening and shows a genuine care and concern when you are talking to her.

  9. Alegre

    My daughter was 14 when we first met John Kerry. The circumstances were a bit different because we were actually back stage, rather than on the rope line (I spoke about blogging at the event). We had a private introduction actually as Kerry was leaving the event, and both my daughter and I were rather stunned by it all. Even more stunning was that he remembered us at the next event.

    I was on the blogger call the otrher day when you spoke to HRC, she knew exactly who you were. Something for both you and your daughter to be proud of.

  10. cali says:

    I had the opportunity to shake President Clinton’s hand at an event for a congressional candidate during the 06 election cycle. It seemed at the time that he would have kept holding on to my hand. I pulled away first. He has that rare ability to make people feel they have his sole attention for an unlimited amount of time. Amazing. Would love to have the opportunity to meet Senator Clinton.

    When I attended the CA Party Convention in San Diego as a delegate, although I was supporting John Edwards at the time, I was impressed with Hillary Clinton’s speech and her demeanor. I was also impressed with her campaign staff. Wish I would have accepted the Hillary campaign T-shirt I was offered.

    So, Obama’s a “finger-pincher?” That just about says it all.