No, Crowds Are Not Fleeing Obama Rallies

How the ordinary tale of voters leaving rallies early became a phony sign of Democratic weakness.

Barack Obama speaks during a rally at Chicago State University October 19, 2014 in Chicago

Photograph by Brendan SmiIalowski/AFP/Getty Images

In 1968, the omnipresent political reporter Hugh Sidey coined the term "crowdsmanship" to describe the "prehistoric political ritual" of measuring enthusiasm for a candidate by how many people packed his rallies. The 2014 midterms have birthed a new ritual, which I'll describe with the stopgap label "reverse crowdsmanship." Enthusiasm is suddenly being measured by whether or not people stay for the entirety of a rally. If they don't, electoral peril approaches like a horseman of the apocalypse.

This highly unscientific method of analysis kicked off on Oct. 19, when Reuters added some color to a report about President Obama's campaign stop in Maryland. The headline: "Obama makes rare campaign trail appearance, people leave early." This was true, if confusing. According to reporter Jeff Mason, the "early departures of crowd members while he spoke underscored his continuing unpopularity."

They showed up to see the president and decided, midway through the speech, that he was so yesterday? Maryland Democrats spun the story, explaining that Obama spoke to a main crowd and an overflow room, but the meme had taken hold. The Drudge Report played up the story, and later linked a Daily Caller post that suggested Obama had caused Maryland Democrats to drop nine points in the polls. (Actually, the DC was comparing a secret Republican internal to public polls that showed no swoon.)

I covered yesterday's Obama swing into Milwaukee, and was reminded of a crucial fact: Presidential rallies are terrible. At 4 p.m., when I arrived with some car-pooling reporters, a line of black voters snaked around the high school where Obama was going to speak–nearly three hours later. As reporters set up inside, voters filled up a gymnasium, some of them settling for chairs with no view of the stage. A few drafted me into nagging campaign staff for a speaker, so they could hear speeches; they had less success getting a line of cameramen to sit down so they could see past the bleachers.

After the speech, the RNC posted a tracker video of some people leaving Obama's speech. The Weekly Standard put it up; Drudge found it quickly. The video was taken when Obama had around four minutes left in his speech, and anyone in the room could see a small number of people locating the exits. Why not? They'd been there for three hours or so, on a Tuesday. None of the departing voters I talked to had cooled on the president. They'd taken their photos and they were going home. One woman, who'd encouraged me to talk to her mother, Edna Banks, and not her, was distracted by a phone call she'd gotten an hour into the rally, informing her that her kids had been in a car crash. I'm hoping she was the only voter with that story; my point is that the people heading out were not sick of the president.

The "crowds flee Obama" meme will probably thrive in the final days of the election. Reporters are on watch; there's not likely to be much "news" at the Obama rallies apart from DREAM Act hecklers and gaffes. (Obama briefly said "Washington" when he meant "Wisconsin," and corrected himself.)

Anyone who thinks that the Democrats' final get-out-the-vote events are sputtering because some voters didn't stay for the speech to end and "Land of Hope and Dreams" to blare is deluding himself.

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