Despite political rallies being somewhat controlled affairs, with campaigns making every attempt to keep out hecklers and other disturbances, these events do sometimes result in bad optics for presidential candidates.
On Friday, a man was photographed by Getty Images at a rally for the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket in Lancaster, Ohio, wearing a T-shirt that read "Put The White Back In the White House." Conservatives now say the man may have been a liberal plant designed to make Romney look bad, and the GOP nominee has disavowed the racist T-shirt. On Saturday, a Romney spokesperson told Buzzfeed the shirt is "reprehensible and has no place in this election."
But whoever the man was, the presence of the T-shirt inside the event seems an indication of how political rallies have become harder to control.
It's unlikely a T-shirt like this one, for example, would have shown up at any George W. Bush campaign events. Back in 2004, Bush's campaign events were known for removing dissenters and any other attendees who might look bad if seen on TV or in a photo. That year, three school teachers were removed from a rally for Bush at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in Oregon because they wore T-shirts that read: "Protect our civil liberties."
Less than a year later, after Bush was president, the White House removed three people from a rally in Colorado, reportedly because they were members of the Denver Progressives political activist group, and had T-shirts under their business clothes asking for Bush to "stop the lies." According to Fox News, the White House also had a list at that time of 42 people, some connected to a local chapter of Democracy for America, who were to be banned from a Fargo, N.D. event. The White House later said the list was a mistake, but it was an indication of how tightly-controlled rallies could be.
Fast forward seven years, and campaigns are still known to pick out the people who populate the backdrop of political events that are televised live. Campaigns certainly still remove hecklers from rallies.
But both the Obama and Romney campaigns haven't been very successful this year in screening out dissenters ahead of time—protesters have easily made their way into a number of rallies. And the campaigns haven't been able to keep out people who are bad optics for the campaign, like the man in the racist T-shirt.
John C. Fortier, a political scientist at the Bipartisan Policy Center who focuses on governmental and electoral institutions, including political rallies, explains that the campaigns haven't necessarily become less vigilant. "I think it's just a harder thing to limit these people today," he says.
In part, that may be because campaign rallies are more frequent, and more impromptu, than before. Campaign stops are sometimes planned just days, instead of weeks, in advance, meaning event-planners on the ground have less time to get ready. And the prevalence of iPhones and other new media that can quickly capture and disseminate images of what's happening on the ground also make the events harder to control.
"I certainly do think campaigns are as vigilant as they ever were in trying to have the audience they want to have," says Fortier. "But Romney, with a surge in the polls, is seeing larger people and wanting more people," he says, noting that campaigns today have to strike a balance between "wanting people to support them [at rallies] but also being easily broadcast by media, and opposition research."