Jewish World Review May 9, 2012/ 16 Iyar, 5772
Empty Seats Haunt Obama
By Roger Simon
It began with a huge and startling headline atop the popular Drudge Report on Saturday. This was the day President Obama was kicking off his presidential campaign with a rally at Ohio State University.
Drudge was not impressed. "OBAMA LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN IN HALF EMPTY STADIUM," he screamed in large letters atop his webpage.
The headline linked to Breitbart.com, which had an even more startling headline: "OBAMA LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN IN EMPTY ARENA."
The story was accompanied by a picture of the inside of OSU's enormous Jerome Schottenstein Center, which is used for basketball and hockey games. The picture, supplied by the Mitt Romney campaign, showed a slice of the stadium with hundreds of empty seats.
The arena was certainly not "empty" nor even "half empty," and it was not clear that the president was even on stage when the picture was taken.
After some hours, the Drudge Report changed its wording slightly and added an ominous question mark, so it now read: "OBAMA CAMPAIGN LAUNCH IN HALF EMPTY STADIUM?"
In journalism, a question mark justifies virtually anything, no matter how unlikely. "Hillary to Replace Biden on Ticket?" or "Romney to Endorse Gay Marriage Between Corporations?" would be two examples.
Breitbart stuck with its "empty arena" headline, however (it was still running late Monday afternoon), and its story stated: "It's a campaign faux pas to hold an event in a room that isn't full; to promise the media a more-than-capacity crowd then fall this far short of that promise is utter incompetence."
Though the verbiage is overwrought, there is a germ of truth in it. A standard rule of politics is to hold events in rooms small enough so that the press will note that the venue was "packed" or the event was "standing room only" or that the crowd was "overflow."
Another standard rule is you don't brag about your crowds before they happen. You wait for them to show up, and then you brag. And the Obama campaign booted that one.
Before the rally, ABC News ran a story on its Political Punch site that said: "The Obama campaign expects overflow crowds at both OSU and VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) as part of carefully orchestrated optics. Aides want to portray the president as still highly popular among young people and still able to energize large crowds."
And, sure enough, when the rally took place with empty seats, Political Punch's headline after the event was: "Thousands Turn Out for Obama, but Ohio Arena Goes Unfilled." The story said: "Obama wasn't able to fill the stands at the 18,300-seat Schottenstein Center (about 4,300 seats were empty)."
Many stories noted the empty seats, not because empty seats are unusual in large arenas, but because the press felt it had been promised that every seat would be filled and the overflow crowd would be hanging from the rafters.
The New York Times said Obama's "14,000 supporters ... did not fill" the 18,300 seat arena, Buzzfeed.com said "over 5,000 seats in the 20,000-person venue went unfilled," and MSNBC's First Read said, "Observers of the 2008 race know that the first Obama campaign would have been able to fill every seat."
The figure of 14,000 in attendance appears to have come from a local fire marshal, but how close did Obama come to filling every seat? The Schottenstein Center website is dense with information: "If filled with Coca-Cola, the arena would hold 133,187,970 gallons," and, "The showerheads in the Buckeye Basketball locker rooms are 9.5 feet high."
Also, a special door on the west end of the arena is high enough "for elephants, semi trucks, tour buses and monster trucks to enter the arena floor."
But how many seats are there? Well, it depends: "The venue seats 17,500 for ice hockey, 19,500 for basketball and up to 20,000-plus for concerts."
In any case, Obama didn't fill it, the Romney campaign tweeted that fact, and the Obama campaign struck back by pointing out that Obama's crowd of 14,000 was larger than any crowd ever drawn by Romney, and at Ford Field in Detroit in February Romney attracted only 1,200 people sitting on folding chairs on the field and surrounded by 65,000 empty stadium seats.
But the "Obama does not fill arena" stories went on and on for days. The Washington Post, among others, devoted an entire story to it, and Fox News ran a segment on Monday afternoon, teasing with, "Does the president have an enthusiasm gap or is this just much ado about nothing?" (Again, the dreaded question mark.)
For those who think political optics don't count, consider how much time and space the media, both mainstream and sidestream, spent on those empty seats. The Obama campaign would much rather the media had spent their time reporting and analyzing what the president had said in his kickoff speech.
I tweeted immediately after the speech was over: "Obama announcement speech 4 yrs ago was sweeping, elegant and grand. Today's was fiery, dramatic and determined." (You're not following me on Twitter at @politicoroger yet? What the hell is wrong with you?)
But were the empty seats a worthy story? (Ignore the question mark.) Yes. To some small extent.
Crowds at big-time political events don't just happen. Campaigns create them. It can take weeks of organizing, weeks of phone calls, weeks of meetings. It is a major effort.
It is also a dry run for Election Day. You identify your people (and those you hope will become your people), you solidify your hold on them, you get them out to the event to applaud madly.
That is the enthusiasm factor that crowds demonstrate. That is the organizing factor that crowds show.
A crowd of 14,000 is a good crowd. And if the Obama campaign had not predicted an "overflow" crowd at a huge arena, or if it had sprinkled some monster trucks throughout the place, people would be singing its praises today.
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate