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Why Voters Attend Final-Days Campaign Rallies

David Freedlander reports from a Romney rally where fans turned out to watch history in the making, support their man, and even make sure they made the right choice.

As the 2012 presidential campaign has reached its apex, the chatter among the warring Mitt Romney and Barack Obama camps has devolved into an “ours is bigger than yours” crowd-size envy. You got 10,000 at Red Rocks? We got 23,000 at a high school in Hollywood, Fla.

To more seasoned political observers, those less susceptible to campaign spin, such signs of strength are relatively meaningless. Crowd size has less to do with who will win the election, and more to do with a host of factors unrelated to who has more supporters in a given part of the country—location of the rally, time of day, size of venue, the determination of organizers to divert GOTV resources to it. At some of the Mitt Romney rallies I have attended, it seems as if a far greater proportion of the crowd is interested in the warm-up act—the Oak Ridge Boys in one case, the Marshall Tucker Band in another—than the politics.

Which makes sense. It is not as if very many undecided voters go to rallies of each side, carefully weigh the arguments made therein, then decide who to vote for. But still, they serve their purpose—the candidates are guaranteed prominent local TV and newspaper coverage, and the campaigns get to rev up their supporters, record their email addresses, sign them up to volunteer, and find out if they have already voted.

But if you are not interested in hearing the Alabama cover band do their set, or the candidate for agricultural commissioner lay out his first-term agenda, why bother going at all? The stump speech surely isn’t going to be that much different from the one you heard before, and as likely as not to be carried by cable or discoverable on the web. Don’t people have better things to do than stand around for several hours—and it almost always involves standing—and listen to a politician?

In conversations with several people who rallied for Mitt Romney in the course of his week-long sprint to Election Day, The Daily Beast discovered a variety of reasons—to watch history (hopefully) be made, to swell crowd sizes for the press, to spur your guy on in visceral way that voting or even sending in a check can’t do.

“I want to show him my appreciation,” said Jeffrey Lair. He was a committed Romney fan, having only attended political rallies before on behalf of Sarah Palin in 2008, but not John McCain, whom he deemed not conservative enough. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” came on, he stopped for a moment and said, “There you go. I bet you don’t see that on the other [Democratic] side.”

“It’s a pretty grueling thing he is doing,” he continued. “You want to spur him on, like a football game.”

Kristy Sternes, 34, and an adjunct professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., echoed these thoughts at a rally a few hundred miles away and a few hours after.

“It’s kind of like a pep rally,” she said, explaining that she had left her four children with her mother for the afternoon to wave her Romney/Ryan sign. “It makes you feel patriotic.”

The reasons fans come to rallies could range to the unusual.

“It’s a radiation,” said Paulya Kauffman, 59, who attended a rally at an airport hangar in Florida. He wore a baseball cap with an Israeli flag on it, and described his profession as an “inventor” who had fallen on hard times after the election of Obama. “When you bring people together they are able to radiate their truth.”

And at least half the people The Daily Beast spoke with seem to be there to make sure that they had made the right choice. In the long primary slog, they backed someone else. One gets the sense, for example, that if Newt Gingrich wanted to run for president, he would still have some fans out there.

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“Gingrich was just more aggressive. He was ready for a fight,” said Michael Nieset, 48, a consultant who had come to a Romney rally in Cleveland. The press has made a lot of noise about how Romney tacked quickly to the center before the first debate, but no one The Daily Beast spoke with saw the race that way.

“I don’t think he has gone to the center. The center has warmed up to him. I mean, how many women out there really want unlimited abortion on demand, other than Sandra Fluke?”

Pauline Moreau, a 77-year-old retiree in the Orlando-area, concurred with the affinity for Gingrich.

“I liked Newt, until he cut his own throat,” she said. “I liked that Romney was a businessman, but I just knew Gingrich a little more.”

“I was for Newt,” said Peter Hopkins, 65, also a retiree in Lynchburg, Va. “I wanted to make war with the liberals. Romney was too much—what is that Beatles song, ‘The Attack of the Plastic People’?”

And despite having stood around for several hours waiting for Romney to show up, he still wasn’t sure if he supported Romney so much as he wanted Obama to lose.

“I’m saying you and I can’t get a job without showing your college transcript, or your work history. How has he gotten away with it?”

The Romney campaign never doubted that even those who supported others in the primaries would come on board eventually. As with Hopkins, the desire to see Obama lose was just too great. And if political observers have noticed a warmer, softer Obama on the stump over the tail end of the campaign, it is because the angry, snarling Romney is the one that rock-ribbed conservatives wanted to see.

And then, there is of course his religion. Melissa Young, 49, a stay-at home mom in Virginia, said she attended the rally to show people and the press that Romney’s Mormonism was not a problem for her.

“We are not electing a pastor. We are electing a president,” she said. “[His religion] did bother me at first, but he is not running to promote Mormonism, he is running to promote the American way of life.”

But perhaps nobody who attends a Romney rally was as skeptical as Paul Heisler, 44, who attended a rally on Monday in Fairfax, Va. He waited in line for two hours with his wife and eight of their kids. The wife, and seven of the kids made inside, and he was left holding one on his shoulders while Romney rallied the faithful at George Mason. He wasn’t a Romney fan during the primaries. So whom did he support?

“I was always for somebody else,” he said, meaning each Republican—Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Gingrich—until each one flamed out in turn. “There was always somebody more conservative.”