Did you hear that Obama was supposed to go to a campaign photo shoot at a community center in Prince George’s County with his family but, like, no one showed up, not even Michelle or Sasha or Malia, and when he got there he looked really sad and dejected because no one cares about him?
No? Well, what about the event Romney was supposed to have in Nawtreel, Ind.? It took place in a high-school football stadium, and Romney’s staff was anticipating a crowd of 3,000. Instead, no one came, and the scrambling staffers were forced to lure a pack of stray dogs into the bleachers with scraps from a local butcher, put “Romney 2012” doggy shirts on them, and pipe in crowd noise to drown out the howling.
OK, so neither of these things happened. But given the extent to which we’ve become fixated on the sizes of crowds at Obama and Romney events, you can’t blame me for letting my imagination run wild a little bit. First there was Romney giving a speech to a small crowd at the not-small Ford Field in February, prompting a fair bit of liberal glee over the catastrophically bad optics. Then, a couple weeks ago, Obama failed to fill an arena in Columbus, Ohio, leading to gloating on the right, much of it prompted by the mindless forwarding of what appears to be a very misleading photo tweeted by Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.
Then, this weekend, the most recent one, which, mercifully, received less attention than the previous two. Obama gave a speech in front of a couple’s garage in Reno and failed to draw much of a crowd.
In each case, the usual suspects did the usual pontificating about What It Means; that Obama or Romney, depending on your politics, clearly isn’t enjoying popular support and just might be doomed.
We need a moratorium on this nonsense. The journalists covering the election should ignore opportunistic crowing from the campaigns about small crowd sizes—or do some journalism and explain to us why a given instance of sparse attendance matters.
While it’s certainly telling when a candidate draws huge crowds wherever he goes, as Obama did in 2008, that was a once-in-a-lifetime election. During this one, which will be a regression to the mean in many ways, it would be hard to come up with a more superficial, less rigorous metric of how the campaign is going than the turnout at a given campaign stop. Simply put, a million things can affect turnout, from weather to how well-publicized the event was, and most of them aren’t hugely interesting or important.
That won’t stop political journalists, particularly those with a strong ideological affiliation, from circulating photos of empty seats—often snapped or tweeted by staffers themselves. It would be one thing if reporters reported on these instances and explained who screwed up or why we should care. In the case of the Ford Field speech, for example, the Romney campaign really did blow it, and there would be nothing wrong with reporting out why that happened. But often what we see instead is little more than a recitation of what happened, as though the size of the crowd at one event can tell us much of anything.
These stories often reflect one of the most loathsome tendencies—although by now it’s more of a tic, really—in campaign reporting: to report that a given non-event “could” (or, even better, “could potentially”) become an issue. It’s a nifty way for journalists to abdicate any and all responsibility to determine what matters, to elevate the minute and the ephemeral to the status of earth-shattering. And the beauty of it is that it’s self-fulfilling.
Take the Daily Mail’s classic explanation of the Reno talk: “In what could be a disastrous photo opportunity for the President’s campaign, Mr Obama spoke to a handful of people in the crucial swing state.” Yes, this meaningless blip certainly could become disastrous for Obama if outlets like the Mail keep publishing stories about how disastrous it could be.
Obviously, none of this is going away. It’s each campaign’s job to paint the other as floundering and not enjoying broad popular appeal, and partisan outlets and blogs will surely follow their leads. But that doesn’t mean respectable journalists have to take their cues from the communications specialists running the campaigns.