In a country as vast as the US, anyone who wants a prayer of winning a presidential election has to devote significant time and resources to the "flyover" states. And there is no better vehicle to build a groundswell of attention than the campaign bus.
In the old days, presidential hopefuls campaigned by traveling around the country via train on "whistle stop" tours. These days, contenders such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are rolling around in patriotically decorated behemoths emblazoned with inspirational mottos like "Get America Working Again."
America is the land of the road trip, after all, and the bus tour taps into our collective wanderlust and latent desire to see such obscure roadside attractions such as the Boll Weevil monument in Enterprise, Ala. Campaign buses also conjure up the excitement of a rock and roll band, with its glamour, gladhanders, and groupies.
Traveling by bus does make you more vulnerable to critical national press. Thus, it seems more transparent and folksy than flying into a state and making a beeline for the local TV studio so as to bypass any harpies. But something about a bright, happy campaign bus turns cynical media mavens into sycophants, giving breathless play-by-plays of every move the lumbering vehicle and its star occupant makes.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain made the most of his "Straight Talk Express" in 2008. When he ran into campaign funding problems, he downsized staff, jumped on the bus and invited the media to join him. The bus became an icon of his campaign.
Now there’s the phenomenon of using what looks like a campaign bus to take a tour, knowing that people will assume that you are campaigning, and then saying you are just trying to listen to the American people. Exhibit A: Sarah Palin and her One Nation bus tour. She claims to not be a candidate, but that rings about as true as President Obama saying his three-day bus tour of the Midwest had nothing to with campaigning for reelection.
If it looks like a campaign bus and acts like a campaign bus…well, you know.