Beware the Crowdsmanship: When it comes to campaign rallies, does size matter?

“We are entering the season of crowdsmanship, counting up the people who gather to see the presidential candidates on these autumn days,” political columnist Hugh Sidey observed in a Life magazine article in September 1968. “The prehistoric political ritual is being practiced in 1968 with fresh fervor.”

Unlike some political reporters today, Sidey wasn’t fooled by all the hype, observing, “it is almost worthless as a campaign measure in this age. It may even be worse – it may totally mislead the contenders and the country.”

Sidey was right to be skeptical, as he noted:

Richard Nixon, a consummate practitioner of crowdsmanship, ecstatically passes out figures – 150,000 in San Francisco, 450,000 in Chicago. Victory is only a crowd or two away. George Wallace assembles 10,000 in Springfield, Mo. and claims the largest political crowd in the city’s history. It gives him nocturnal visions of sitting in the Oval Office. Hubert Humphrey has been the Charlie Brown of crowdsmanship. His crowds have been low to nonexistent.

Crowdsmanship (exaggerating the size and meaning of rally crowds) is an age-old ritual in presidential races near the end, when crowds often do grow in size and intensity. Campaign spokespeople then develop — or spin – the growing size of their rallies into a narrative about a groundswell of support for their candidate. And the reporters following them often adopt those narratives.

It’s happening now with both presidential campaigns. Spokespeople for Obama and Romney are bragging about the size of their rallies and pointing to the enthusiastic crowds as an indication of growing support. Consider this piece in Politico from Oct. 12:

It may be his supporters, or it may be those getting a glimpse of the GOP nominee for the first time, but Mitt Romney’s crowds are getting bigger in the campaign’s final stretch.

Since his strong presidential debate performance last Wednesday night, Romney has seen a bump in the number of people attending his rallies, which the campaign calls a sign of new enthusiasm in the final month of the campaign.

In the past week alone, Romney’s campaign says at least three of its rallies have, per the campaign’s crowd counts, exceeded 10,000 people: an Oct. 4 event with country singer Trace Adkins in Fishersville, Va., which was Romney’s largest event ever at 14,000 people; a rally last Sunday in Port St. Lucie, Fla., that drew 12,000; and one in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, that fire marshals estimated also drew 12,000.

Romney’s other rallies this week have been large as well: in Asheville, N.C., Thursday night, just before the vice presidential debate, Romney’s rally filled the venue and had an overflow crowd of about 8,000. The night before, a rally at the Shelby County Fairgrounds here in Sidney lured about 9,500 people.

The campaign has also seen RSVPs for its events increase “drastically” after the first debate, Romney spokesman Rick Gorka said.

“Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more fired up about this election, and fired up about Gov. Romney,” Gorka said. “The debate helped crystallize that energy and it’s translating to our events.”

Romney’s campaign has apparently taken crowdsmanship one step further, however, altering on Instagram a photograph of a recent Nevada rally, making the crowd appear much larger than it actually was.

All the boasting and exaggerations of campaign flacks, and the creative work of Photoshop artists, should give political reporters pause. Many of them live in a protective bubble supplied by the candidate, so it’s understandable that they will occasionally be susceptible to the spin. But that makes it all the more important to be careful and resist the urge to read too much into the size of campaign crowds in the waning days of a presidential campaign.

Even losing campaigns, it seems, are adept at turning out huge crowds as Election Day approaches.

As former Vice President Walter Mondale wrote in his memoir, The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics, the crowds at Hubert Humphrey’s rallies in 1968 began to swell in late October/early November:

Suddenly, the rallies started drawing bigger crowds. Money started coming in again, and volunteers too. . . . Humphrey was getting jubilant crowds and great press.

Four years later, large crowds came out to meet Democratic nominee George McGovern, who would lose to Richard Nixon in a massive landslide.

Here, for example, is how the New York Times covered a McGovern rally in New York City on November 2, 1972, in a story headlined, “Police estimate 20,000 at McGovern’s rally.”

Although estimates varied widely as to the size of the crowd at Sen. George McGovern’s garment center rally Wednesday, Police Department Engineering estimates yesterday supported The New York Times estimate of 20,000.

The police figure was based on measurements of the three blocks along Seventh Avenue that the crowd filled and an allotment of 3 feet for each person. The total area in the three blocks from the building to building is 75,000 feet.

The maximum crowd, according to these estimates, would be 25,000 people.

In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis lost badly to George H.W. Bush, but still attracted large crowds in the campaign’s final days. Consider this New York Times article from Nov. 5, headlined, “Hailed by Big Crowds, Dukakis Foresees an Upset.”

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis embarked on his final weekend of campaigning with combative defiance of the polls and pundits, urging a series of warm and cheering crowds to remember Harry S. Truman’s 1948 upset.

”I smell victory in the air, don’t you?” he asked his audience in Lexington, Ky., where he campaigned before heading on to Chicago and a traditional torchlight parade, where he walked up Michigan Avenue with his wife, Kitty, at his side. The avenue was lined with throngs of cheering people waving red, white and blue Dukakis signs.

His first stop today was at an enthusiastic rally of a few thousand supporters in Forest Hills, Queens, where the Democratic Presidential nominee, in a hoarse voice edged with indignation, scoffed at Vice President Bush’s contention that the Republican ticket was ”on your side,” and pressed his appeal to traditional Democrats.

Today’s crowds came amid showings of enthusiasm for most of the week – a crowd of 15,000 in Philadelphia on Thursday, 9,000 in Chicago on Wednesday and 7,500 in Milwaukee on Tuesday.

John Kerry lost a close race to George W. Bush in 2004, but still drew large crowds at the end. In fact, it seems the only candidate in recent memory not to draw large crowds to rallies at the end of his campaign was John McCain in 2008. As the New York Times reported on Oct. 25, 2008:

The McCain campaign says no one should read anything into crowd sizes. Still, Mr. McCain drew a spare crowd in New Mexico. Crowd size doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, but on a Saturday nine days out from Election Day, it does say something about voter enthusiasm.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, it seems that candidates and their campaigns are wedded to the idea of the campaign rally not only as indicator of growing support, but as one of the most important tools for voter motivation.

But do these rallies really make much difference? That’s what Cincinnati Enquirer reporter John Johnston asked in a recent story.

Political pundits say candidates aren’t expecting to win over huge numbers of undecided voters at the campaign stops. Rather, they aim to energize supporters and generate buzz. The desired result is a statewide ripple effect: More appearances mean reaching more people who will influence their own family, friends and neighbors.

If candidates visit often enough, tens of thousands of loyal backers will make numerous personal appeals of their own. Add in local news coverage — it’s almost always positive — and the sum total is more likely to tip the scales in a close election.

“Nobody likes to be ignored, so in a battleground state it’s very important for candidates to get their core supporters really cranked up and excited about working hard,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Those core supporters “are the people that knock on doors and man the phone banks and do the real shoe leather work that makes an awful lot of difference in a close race.”

There’s another compelling reason for those rallies, that Johnston notes: press coverage.

A candidate “gets face time on the news broadcasts, and he gets written up in the newspaper,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Whatever sound bite is produced out of the visit will be repeated on television.”

And generally speaking, “I think the stories are more positive than negative,” Kondik said.

Sasha Issenberg makes that point in his new book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. It tells of four political scientists who were brought into Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2006 re-election campaign. A dozen of Perry’s personal appearances were dictated by an experiment designed by the academics.

Issenberg notes that Perry’s physical presence “had a remarkable ability to drive (media) coverage” and that “local coverage of his trips was almost exclusively positive.” In eight control markets that Perry didn’t visit, “the governor was barely covered in the media during the same period.”

Kondik said news stories typically include statements from the opposing campaign, but they’re usually overshadowed by the coverage of the candidate in town.

And, then there’s the historic, ritualistic nature of these rallies, as explored in this recent story in the New York Times:

Crisscrossing the state, barely managing not to trip over each other, the two candidates enacted a ritual nearly as old as the republic. Roaming hither and yon, they beat the bushes for votes, relying on the most primitive forms of political expression: the fist-pounding stump speech and the handshake.

But why? Flying hundreds or thousands of miles to deliver a stemwinder to a few thousand voters would seem to make as much sense, in the era of the blog and the tweet and the 24-hour news cycle, as making your own suit. Yet the rally persists, essentially unchanged since the days of Andrew Jackson.

“In the old days, candidates had to go to rallies,” said Melissa Miller, a political scientist at Bowling Green. “That was the only way for the people to hear them. Now, they’re all about rallying the base, igniting a spark that motivates supporters to tell their friends, to make calls, to donate. It’s much more effective than robocalls.”

Traditionally, the political rally has been first cousin to the tent revival and the traveling circus. That tradition continues, although these days it serves other purposes: to gather e-mail addresses, sign up volunteers, raise money and produce images for television and newspaper coverage.

Clearly, the campaign rally as a motivation and earned-media device isn’t going anywhere. Besides, what else are these candidates going to do when not governing or fundraising? Sitting at home is not an option.

But the fact remains that the size of a rally is not always a good indicator of momentum. Larger crowds don’t always translate into larger Election Day victories.

The journalists trailing Obama and Romney in the next eight days would be wise to read Hugh Sidey’s 1968 “crowdsmanship” piece in Life and consider the long history of candidates who shamelessly exaggerated the size and meaning of their rallies:

The history of crowdsmanship ship is one disaster after another. Harry Truman at first failed to attract crowds in 1948 and so his defeat was taken for granted. In the last weeks of the campaign, when the folks began to turn out, the pundits simply refused to believe it. Those traveling with John Kennedy in 1960 raised crowdsmanship to new heights, cataloging jumpers, squealers, runners and leapers and believing that the huge throngs who had gathered to see Kennedy surely represented every warm body in the United States. There was considerable shock on election night when Kennedy won by only 119,000 votes. As Lyndon Johnson came down to the wire 1964 his crowds became small and indifferent, while [Barry] Goldwater’s hot partisans still ripped the roofs off all over the country. L.B.J. got the biggest margin in history. As president, when he still traveled the country, Johnson presented the paradox of getting larger and larger airport crowds all the while his national popularity was slipping. Johnson would not believe the polls and the advice of political leaders that he was in trouble. He insisted that he could tell by the faces that the country was with him. . . .

Perhaps it would all be fine if the country would simply look and laugh. They say that when a president calls of Chicago’s boss Richard Daley and says he plans to visit the city Daley automatically asks, “How big a crowd you want – 50,000 or 100,000?” Back in 1960, when [Kennedy press secretary] Pierre Salinger was estimating Kennedys turnouts, the campaign correspondents compiled a book of rules for crowdsmanship. Their formula was to take Salinger’s estimates, cut them in half, then subtract another 2,000. Police estimates from Newark, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were divided by three and 25% of the Texas sheriff’s estimates was considered generous.

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