I have marched in seven parades this summer with a candidate I am supporting. Sometimes it seemed like a marginally productive effort. In the most recent parade, the parade organizers placed my candidate in the spot right behind his opponent. Each campaign had volunteers carrying a banner with their candidate's name, and each candidate ran along the route shaking hands with the onlookers. A few times, the candidates literally bumped into each other. The candidates were each, by coincidence, wearing light blue shirts. One candidate was a bit taller than the other. One was a little older. One a little heavier. But I would doubt that many of the people they met along the route, most of whom smiled at each candidate and shook each candidate's hand, remembered either candidate's name five seconds after the candidates marched past them.
Parading is often viewed as more of an obligation than an opportunity. If a candidate fails to show up, he is more likely to be remembered for his absence than he would have been for his presence if he had been there. To not march in a town's parade is to say to the town, “I don't care about you.” So the candidates march, knowing that their opponents will spread the word if they don't show up.
It wouldn't seem as if anyone should vote for a candidate just because they shook the candidate's hand, and most people probably don't, especially if they have shaken both candidates' hands. The candidates' positions and backgrounds and records should be what influences who wins and who loses. And those are, to a great extent, what matters. Parades don't. But parades aren't a waste of time. They are actually very important, but not because of the votes they bring in.
Parades are important because they give the candidates an opportunity to hear from a whole lot of people in a very short time. If people have something they want a politician to know, and they can see that the politician only has a couple of seconds for them, they will hold onto the politician's hand and tell them in very terse language what they want to tell them. People who need jobs will tell the candidates “I need a job.” People who are against a war will tell the candidates, “Stop the damn war.” People who want lower taxes will say, “Stop raising taxes.” Parade watchers boil their concerns down to bumper-sticker length. In the hour or two that it takes to walk a parade route, candidates who listen can learn a lot about what is on the voters' minds.
But beyond just learning the messages that parade watchers give them, candidates can learn the mood of the electorate, too. People sometimes boo or shout angrily at a candidate who displeases them. People sometimes cheer. A few people throw things. The mood of the crowd can differ depending upon which political party dominates a region, and the mood of any crowd is a pretty good indicator of how they feel about the direction the country is going.
People who haven't seen the inside of a political campaign like to belittle politicians for shaking hands and kissing babies and eating funnel cakes at carnivals, and politicians who do these things just for the photo opportunities deserve the criticism. But politicians who embrace these public events as chances to get amongst the people and talk with them at their own level, in their own neighborhoods, move into their campaigns with a real advantage over opponents who rely on consultants to tell them what the voters think.
Some people complain that politicians shouldn't politicize July 4th, or Memorial Day, and some parade organizers even try to keep candidates out of their parades. But I hope the politicians never stop glad handing at parades. Parade watchers aren't a scientifically selected sampling of the voters. They are just real folks, who in the immediacy of an unexpected chance to tell a politician a thing or two, will tell it straight up. So long as politicians are listening to them, and not just to the pollsters, democracy may survive.