Covering Crowd Control

One staple in from-the-campaign-trail stories is a passing description of the welcoming, applause-ready crowds gathered to hear candidates’ stump speeches. For example, today The Washington Post’s Mike Allen and Dan Balz offer this brief detail about President Bush’s stop in Cincinnati yesterday: “The day concluded with a rally that drew 10,500 boisterous supporters to a Cincinnati hockey arena…”

Lest readers think such smiling, supportive hordes spontaneously form, some reporters here and there actually provide clues or reminders of how these photo-friendly events are manufactured.

Reporting on John Kerry’s “Jobs Tour” through West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania last week, the Associated Press’s Nedra Pickler took great pains to describe what she called Kerry’s “small and carefully selected” crowds. Pickler noted that Kerry’s stop at a hot dog stand “had been planned by [Kerry’s] staff with invited guests,” and that Kerry’s event at the United Auto Workers Local 12 was attended by people “invited to meet the candidate and tell their stories.”

This week, with President Bush out on a bus tour of his own, some reporters again offered readers a peek behind the crowd control curtain. On Monday the Associated Press’s Ron Fournier wrote that Bush spoke to “Republican-friendly audiences” in Kalamazoo, Michigan, adding later that “tickets to [Bush’s] speeches were doled out by partisans” - presumably to partisans.

In today’s Financial Times James Harding writes: “Coming the week after John Kerry’s ‘Jobs First’ convoy snaked through this year’s most fiercely fought state, the Bush rallies of invited guests were self-consciously larger than the Democratic challenger’s audiences.” Specifically, Harding notes, crowds ranged from 1,000 to 10,000 people at each stop - “all ticket-guests invited by the network of in-state campaign volunteers.” This, Harding concludes, is evidence of the “reach” of the Bush campaign’s volunteer network, the seeming superiority, to date, of the Bush campaign’s “ground game.”

And, as the Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin today points out, Mary Rae Bragg of the Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, Iowa) yesterday provided (registration required) some additional insight on the crowd control operations for an upcoming Bush event at Dubuque’s Grant River Center. “A recorded phone message sent to area Republicans last week,” Bragg reported, explained when and where to line up for tickets.

“At least one person who said he waited patiently in line came way empty handed,” Bragg wrote, before offering the sad tale of one Bill Ward of Dubuque. “When it came time to show his identification,” Bragg wrote, “Ward said he was asked if he supported Bush in 2000.” When Ward admitted he had not and did not plan to vote for Bush this year either, he told Bragg, “they asked some girl to escort me out…”

It’s not earthshaking journalism…but it’s nice to see more news outlets explaining to readers the behind-the-scenes machinations that actually produce those friendly crowds of like-minded folk, who after a while begin to blend together in our mind’s eye, like so many cardboard cut-outs that the candidates drag along with them, from Kalamazoo to Dubuque to Swampy Junction.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.