Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Huge Crowds: What Do they Mean?

Original Link: http://wwsword.blogspot.com/2008/06/huge-crowds-what-do-they-mean.html

Howard Dean drew huge crowds in 2004. John Kerry eventually prevailed in the Democratic primary but lost the general election to George W. Bush. George McGovern drew huge crowds in 1972, yet he only won 38 percent of the vote and carried only one state in the general election - and this against a president who had lost the presidential election in 1960 and a bid to be governor of California in 1962, and had barely won the presidential election of 1968. Barry Goldwater drew huge crowds but was blown out by Lyndon Johnson; Goldwater only won 38 percent of the popular vote and carried only a handful of states. George Wallace drew huge crowds wherever he went (voters were wild about him in Michigan and Wisconsin).

If large crowds in the US political arena tell us anything about presidential politics in terms of forecasting it's this: they are a bad omen for electoral success. What large crowds demonstrate is enthusiasm among particular groups of people. Moreover, they tell us something about the people who show up for them.

As we have seen, tens of millions of Americans support Republican candidates. They turn out for the general election in huge numbers and vote for their candidate, yet, Barry Goldwater aside, Republican rallies are dismal events. Rally organizers have to carefully construct the environment to give the impression of a crowd.

Nixon won re-election overwhelmingly even though McGovern drew huge crowds. Nixon's support was among persons who tended not to go to political rallies. Nixon didn't inspire people to stand up and cheer (he rather reminded people of the town mortician). Just because people didn't flock to Nixon's rallies didn't mean they wouldn't support him. They showed their support in another way: they voted for him. Likewise, just because McGovern's supporters were more likely to show up to rallies, and just because there was great enthusiasm at the rallies, didn't mean that McGovern enjoyed the level of support among the population needed to win the general election. On the contrary.

My own view of large crowds is that, for presidential candidates representing the major political parties, their pretty damn creepy. Crowds associated with social movements, such as the throng that regularly turned out for Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights events, are exciting. Anti-war protesting is another example of necessary crowds. These moments create needed visibility for important issues. Crowds associated with rock concerts are exciting, as well. But crowds turning out to see bourgeois politicians is a different matter. These politicians don't represent the masses; they represent the capitalist state. They do not and cannot represent social movements because they stand for the status quo - which in our case represents the privileged few over against the masses.

However progressive a Democratic candidate may be, this progressivism always comes with sharp limits that benefit the status quo and associated rallies carry symbols of obnoxious nationalism: state flags and pledges of allegiance to the state; patriotic anthems, colors, and slogans; expressions of love of country, the founding fathers, and, typically, love of the Christian god. The substance of the rallies are superficial, focusing on personality rather than, well, substance.

I will never forget my experience at a rally for John Edwards in 2004. All the hand-drawn posters supporters brought with them were confiscated at the door, replaced with "hand-drawn" posters supplied by the campaign. Once inside the gates, campaign aides moved through the crowd and picked people of select groups - African Americans, Asians, American Indians, the elderly, the disabled (no Muslims) - to come up on the stage and stand behind the candidate. They were given campaign posters and tiny American flags to wave. They were coached on how to react to the candidate. An image was constructed for the cameras of a diverse America. The message: Democrats represent all Americans. Because I live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, by the time they got through picking out individuals from targeted groups, the crowd the television audience would never see became even whiter! A middle-aged gay white man attended the rally with us. An enthusiastic Edwards supporter, he pleaded with campaign aides to be let on the stage. "I'm gay!" he pleaded. "Pick me, I'm gay!" But because he doesn't wear gay on his skin, he looked liked the typical white male, and so with the rest of us white folks he stayed.

Attempting to make predictions about electoral outcomes based on crowd size and enthusiasm is like walking into a Christian fundamentalist church and asking the congregation about their opinion on abortion and then extrapolating their responses to the general population. It's a fundamental error in human reasoning. If you want to know how a presidential election will likely turn out, study the history of voting patterns and public sentiment, scientific polling at different points in the election cycle, and the state-by-state surveys of attitudes.

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