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Meet the man who set Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ political stage

Canadian advance man Jean-Michel Picher, who is working for Bernie Sanders, walks in shadow in front of the banner. He's wearing a white T shirt under a blue collared shirt.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Five days before Bernie Sanders launched his presidential bid in his hometown of Burlington, Vt., Jean-Michel Picher stood in an empty park imagining what it would look like filled with cheering people, Mr. Sanders on a stage with his family, and a sparkling Lake Champlain as his backdrop.

For Mr. Sanders, the left-leaning, populist senator who is campaigning to become the Democratic candidate, this was to be a truly personal moment, and it was up to Mr. Picher, a political advance man from Toronto, to create that feeling in the lakeside park – and ensure the television pictures and photographs captured it.

"That's what charges me up. Holy cow, I can picture this, and then it happens," Mr. Picher said earlier this week, speaking on a cellphone from his car in Iowa, where he was advancing Mr. Sanders' events for the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses that kick off the 2016 presidential campaigns. Right now, he is in Birmingham, Ala., helping to plan more Sanders events for Monday's Martin Luther King Day.

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In the end, the Burlington event eight months ago exceeded expectations: It was a perfect sunny day, sailboats on Lake Champlain were flying American flags and nearly 6,000 people showed up.

"It was a harbinger of what this campaign has become," Mr. Picher says, noting that his 74-year-old candidate continues to surprise political observers. Polls are showing Mr. Sanders could beat Democratic front-running candidate Hillary Clinton in Iowa and is ahead in the New Hampshire primary to be held Feb. 9.

Mr. Picher is a political consultant and event planner whose particular expertise is producing events for Democratic candidates – finding, and then staging, venues to accommodate sometimes up to 50,000 people. These wide-open rallies, which are often held outdoors, are typical of U.S. campaigns.

He grew up in north Toronto, and went to college in Maine, where a professor encouraged his interest in politics and helped him get on John Kerry's 1996 Senate re-election team. Mr. Picher started out monitoring the media.

He worked his way up – and got a law degree along the way – and was on Mr. Kerry's advance team for his 2004 presidential bid. Mr. Picher lived out of a hockey bag, travelling across the United States, often with only several days to pull together an event. In 2008, he was on Barack Obama's campaign and led the team that created the rally in St. Louis where more than 100,000 people gathered under the Gateway Arch to hear him. Mr. Picher had a week to pull that off.

He is now part of the Sanders team. But he's not exclusive to the Democrats. He's worked for former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and on former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden's leadership campaign. He was an adviser to Michael Ignatieff's Opposition Leader's Office in advance of the 2011 federal election.

The job of an advance person is more than putting up a stage and making sure the microphone works. It takes organization, a focus on details, creativity, a certain calmness and ability to manage panic, and an artistic eye.

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At the same time, the venue – a hospital, a university lecture hall or a large park – is often chosen to help illustrate the announcement or bolster the message the candidate wants to convey.

Mr. Picher worked for Bob Shrum, a veteran American political consultant, in the late 1990s. Mr. Shrum says his former colleague has an "acute sense" of how the event he has set up will look on television. A visually arresting rally, for example, is the way to reach as many people as possible, especially in the primary season, he says.

Mr. Shrum notes, too, that Mr. Picher has a "rare gift" that all really good advance people must have: "When I've seen him interact with a presidential candidate, he is not intimidated. He will say, 'No sir, you should do it this way. Not that way.' He's not cowed …"

Political advance people are not typically well-known as they work behind the scenes. They are, however, considered to be among the heroes of a political operation. A falling banner or a malfunctioning sound system can reflect poorly on the candidate.

Remember Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe wearing a hairnet while touring a cheese factory during the 1997 federal election campaign? His advance team let him down by not thinking about how the cap would photograph. He was ridiculed and labelled gaffe-prone.

Mr. Picher does not have a perfect record. He recalled the early days of Mr. Kerry's campaign for the Democratic nomination when money was tight and there was no budget to professionally wrap the Kerry bus with his new logo, which included a Captain America-like shield.

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Mr. Picher tried to tape the banners to the side of the bus, using 3M packaging tape and then duct tape. Not only did they start to peel off when the bus hit the highway on the way to pick up the candidate, but became a traffic hazard and had to be removed. When the bus arrived at the venue, Mr. Picher was chastised by Mr. Kerry's senior strategists for delivering a bus without a logo.

In Canadian elections, the tradition is to have smaller, more managed events. Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper was criticized for how tightly his events were run, and how vigorously participants were vetted.

Mr. Picher, having seen the process from both sides of the border, thinks the U.S. system is more democratic.

"If I had to pick, I would pick the one where the voters are invited to participate and you build that culture up," he says.

But he believes the culture is changing gradually in Canada, and points to the images of Justin Trudeau campaigning a week before the election in Port Hope, Ont. Pictures show a huge crowd of supporters surrounding Mr. Trudeau in the street, listening to him; his campaign bus is in the background. Mr. Picher says these images are not what Canadians usually see during a campaign.

Last fall, in Boston, Mr. Picher remembers the energy in the convention centre when 20,000 people cheered for Mr. Sanders. The place practically shook. "I enjoy the live event," Mr. Picher says. "I enjoy the dynamic pressure that comes with it, the relief when it doesn't screw up, the evident joy that the audience has at the opportunity both to see someone they really want to see and listen to."

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