Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is drawing large crowds at rallies almost everywhere he goes. Nearly 10,000 in Wisconsin; more than 7,000 in Portland, Maine; more than 5,000 in Denver; and 3,000 in Minneapolis.
That, according to some political observers, is evidence that Sanders is a threat to the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. "Sanders's audience—in a state not among those with traditional early nominating contests—rivaled the largest drawn by Clinton and the Vermont senator in recent weeks," Washington Post reporter John Wagner opined of Sanders’ recent Denver rally. "The extraordinary turnout was the latest evidence that Sanders, 73, has tapped into the economic anxiety of the Democratic electorate."
Not to be outdone, Donald Trump on Saturday bragged that the size of his rally in a Phoenix hotel ballroom “blows away anything that Bernie Sanders has gotten.” Most journalists covering the event pegged the crowd’s size at 4,000 to 5,000. Trump’s staff told Fox News that 15,000 supporters were on hand. Trump later tweeted that he had attracted more than 20,000 (in a ballroom with a maximum legal occupancy of 2,158).
Some in the media were duly impressed by Trump’s crowds on his weekend Western tour (he also held events in Las Vegas and Los Angeles). ABC News described the campaign events in an online story headlined, “Trump Talks Immigration to Record Crowds in Border State.” The headline of MSNBC’s story about Trump’s weekend: “Donald Trump draws massive crowds during campaign swing.”
I have bad news for Sanders, Trump, their supporters and some in the news media fixated on the numbers at candidates’ rallies: The size of rallies has long been a flawed measure of a campaign’s vitality. Journalists often survey an arena brimming with enthusiastic supporters and mistakenly use a head count to gauge the campaign’s prospects. Candidates and their staffs are eager to bolster that faulty notion, sometimes feeding reporters exaggerated crowd estimates (there’s no evidence Sanders’ campaign has done that).
Such a misreading happened in 2012 when spokespeople for President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney bragged about the size of their rallies and pointed to enthusiastic crowds as indications of growing support. Consider this piece in Politico less than a month before the election:
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. . .
“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.”
What Romney and Obama did was an age-old political practice. "We are entering the season of crowdsmanship, counting up the people who gather to see the presidential candidates on these autumn days," the late 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 the hype over crowd size, 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.”
Exaggerating the size of rally crowds is mostly a ritual in presidential races near a campaign’s end, when crowds often do grow in size and intensity. Campaign spokespeople often develop – or spin – the burgeoning size of their rallies into a narrative about a groundswell for their candidate. And the reporters following them often adopt those narratives.
(Romney's campaign apparently took “crowdsmanship” one step further in 2012, altering on Instagram a photograph of a Nevada rally, which made the crowd appear larger. In June, Trump’s campaign was accused of padding the audience of his New York announcement rally, paying actors $50 each to show up and cheer the candidate’s speech.)
This year, the “crowdsmanship” has begun earlier than ever. All the boasting and exaggerations of campaign flacks and the creative work of Photoshop artists should give political reporters pause. These journalists often work in a protective bubble controlled 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 cautious and resist the urge to read too much into the size of campaign crowds because, clearly, even some losing campaigns are adept at generating large crowds.
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, enormous crowds flocked to rallies held by Democratic nominee George McGovern, who would lose to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Here, for example, is how the New York Times reported a McGovern rally in New York on Nov. 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.
Then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry lost a close race to George W. Bush in 2004 but still attracted large crowds to rallies in late October and early November. In fact, it seems the only major presidential nominee in recent memory not to stage impressive rallies near campaign’s end 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 make much difference or foretell a groundswell of popular support? Political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics observed in his Crystal Ball column on July 9 that Sanders’ large crowds aren’t so much indicative of growing support among Democrats, but rather a reflection of the politics and demographics of the cities where he is holding his rallies. Sabato wrote,
Consider the demographics of Denver, Madison, Minneapolis, and Portland: Of those four, only the Mile High City is less than 60% white (53%), and of the 50 biggest cities in the United States, Denver and Minneapolis are among the 18 that are majority non-Hispanic white. Portland is the biggest city in Maine, over 80% white, and located in the Pine Tree State’s most liberal area, Cumberland County. Madison is three-fourths white and an über-liberal university city — it’s no surprise so many people showed up to see Sanders there. In fact, many college towns are going to be among the most receptive to Sanders’ campaign message.
In a 2012 story in the Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter John Johnston wrote a smart piece on the usefulness of campaign rallies. They are expensive and time intensive, for sure, but do they work? Do they persuade voters and do they indicate anything beyond the candidate’s ability to generate a large crowd on a given day? Johnston observed,
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.
There's another compelling reason for those rallies, Johnston noted: 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.
Then, there’s the historic, ritualistic nature of these rallies, as explored in this September 2012 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, using campaign rallies as vehicles to motivate supporters and generate new coverage isn't going anywhere. Besides, what else would candidates do when not governing or fundraising? Nonetheless, the size of a rally is not necessarily an indicator of momentum or popular support. Larger crowds don't always translate into Election Day victories.
Still, sophisticated journalists are often swept up into the enthusiasm generated by a large, emotional rally. On July 7, for example, ABC News correspondent Cecilia Vega appeared on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” to gush about the size – and meaning – of Sanders’ recent rally in Maine. “Seventy five hundred people showing up last night in Maine,” she said. “That is an impressive turnout this early in this campaign and now team Clinton says Bernie Sanders has them worried. Hillary Clinton back on the campaign trail today, destination Iowa. She may be the Democratic front-runner, but this morning Clinton is feeling the burn.”
On the left, some bloggers are thrilled by the size of Sanders’ crowds and eager to read into them ominous signs for Clinton’s future. For example, in the American Thinker in early July, Thomas Lifson wrote,
Does anyone in the Hillary campaign think they can draw ten thousand wildly enthusiastic supporters to cheer, stomp, and call out her name in an orgy of political thrills? I suspect they are considering the question this morning, thinking that out of 16 million or so people in the Greater New York Area, perhaps ten thousand is not an insurmountable number. In Greater Madison, with a population of 568,593 in the 2010 Census, it is certainly an impossibility.
Journalists like Vega, who follow Sanders, Clinton, Trump and other candidates, might wish to fortify themselves with Sidey’s 1968 “crowdsmanship” piece in Life and ponder the long history of candidates and journalists who read irresponsibly judged the success or failure of campaigns based on the size of their rallies. Sidey wrote,
The history of crowdsmanship 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 on 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 Kennedy's 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.
There are many situations in life where size does matter. Journalists would be wise to keep in mind that campaign rallies do not appear to be one of them.