But Who's Counting?

By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 31, 2008

Not that he's bragging or anything, but Barack Obama has something he'd like you to know: Size matters.

At virtually every stop the candidate makes in these closing days of the election, the campaign sends out an announcement with a boast about how really, really big Obama's audience is.

Sunrise, Fla., Oct. 29: "A capacity crowd of 20,000."

Norfolk, Va., Oct. 28: "22K: 11 in the stands/11 on the field."

Fort Collins, Colo., Oct. 26: "45,000-50,000, with thousands still flooding in."

Not only does Obama want you to know how huge his crowds are, but he also wants you to know his opponent, John McCain, has itty-bitty crowds. "University of New Mexico fire marshal Vince Leonard quotes approx 35,000 inside Senator Obama's event tonight and at least another 10k-15k outside," the campaign boasted Saturday night. "Senator McCain reportedly had less than 1,000 this morning."

Of course, crowd estimating is a rather inexact science, as demonstrated by the announcements that the Obama campaign sent out on Sunday. At 2:08 p.m. came a "Denver crowd" bulletin putting the number at 75,000. Exactly 35 minutes later came a "Denver crowd -- UPDATED" bulletin putting the crowd size at "well over 100,000."

To add legitimacy to the crowd boasts, therefore, the Obama campaign accompanies each measurement with the name of a "validator."

"Total is 35k," Obama campaign aide Ben Finkenbinder wrote in an e-mail to reporters on Wednesday night. "Validated by Danny McAvoy, Osceola County Fire Marshal." He then provided Marshal McAvoy's phone number.

Some validators are more valid than others. From Las Vegas came this questionable boast by the Obama campaign: "Bonanza HS Assistant Principal Zane Gray . . . says: '18k ppl.' " The "verifier" for Obama's Norfolk event on Tuesday was the unofficial-sounding "Megan Mensick, Event Coordinator, Seven Venues."

Joe Biden, though his crowds aren't as big as Obama's, also has his validators. "Owner of Dancing Horses Farm, Bob Walla, is estimating crowd count at 4,000," the campaign announced at a Biden stop in Ocala, Fla., on Tuesday. But Walla's crowd inflation was easily exposed: A Washington Post reporter stood on a riser and counted 1,200.

Even the more valid validators still have to pull some numbers out of the air. The validator for the Obama crowd in Raleigh this week, for example, was Chief Scott Hunter of the State Capitol Police. Hunter explained yesterday that his number was "taken from a metal-detector count and a portion was a crowd-size estimate." This, in the technical jargon of crowd counting, is known as a "fudge factor."

At this week's Biden event in Jupiter, Fla., the campaign said validator David England, Jupiter police captain, put the number at 2,000. But England said yesterday that the estimate, which was actually 1,800 to 2,000, "was provided to me" by the Secret Service -- an agency that generally regards itself as too serious to play the how-big-is-my-crowd game.

All this has caused some crowd envy among McCain staffers, who don't put out estimates of their own but frequently complain that reporters are low-balling the Republican candidate's draws.

Yesterday, the fire marshal estimated that 6,000 people had attended McCain's event in Defiance, Ohio. But then NBC News learned from a local school district official that 4,000 of those people were children bused in from area schools, including the entire 2,500-student Defiance School District. Not among the 6,000: Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher, though the candidate was evidently expecting him. "Joe's with us today," McCain told the Defiance crowd. "Joe, where are you? Where is Joe? Is Joe here with us today? Joe, I thought you were here today." Joe was not.

The crowd boasts are somewhat out of character for the Obama campaign, which, after a summer of high audacity, has put away its Greek columns and faux presidential seals and is now seeking to project an image of humility. "Don't believe for a second this election is over," Obama told a Florida crowd yesterday. Two weeks ago, in New Hampshire, he recommended: "For those of you who are getting a little cocky, I have two words for you: New Hampshire. I learned right here that you can't let up or pay too much attention to the polls."

It must be remembered that there is more to a campaign than the size of your crowd. George McGovern, after all, had huge turnout at his events on his way to a landslide defeat. Even a crowd of 100,000 isn't much compared with an electorate of perhaps 150 million. But, explained Obama spokesman Bill Burton: "The reason the crowd size in these early-voting states matters is because of the organizational benefits you get from gathering tens of thousands of voters and immediately being able to get them to early-voting sites."

And the numbers kept coming.

Sarasota, Fla., Oct. 30: "13k plus. Many people coming in still."

Harrisonburg, Va., Oct. 28: "Over 8,000 and over 12,000 outside."

Canton, Ohio, Oct. 27: "Validated at 4,900."

Wait. Only 4,900? You call that a big crowd? A follow-up e-mail came from the campaign 29 minutes later. "Addition crowd info: This was a ticketed event."

Whew. For a moment there, it looked as though Obama had been brought down to size.

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