December 3rd, 2008
02:07 PM ET

Political campaigns and 'Crowd control'

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/12/03/art.crowds.jpg]

Gary Tuchman | BIO
AC360 Correspondent

Now that the Georgia U.S. Senate race is over and voters are finally done casting their ballots in the 2008 elections, it seems an appropriate time to bring up something that we in the news media need to do something about. And that is, to stop being propagandized by campaign spokespeople about the size of crowds at campaign rallies.

These people believe, and perhaps rightfully so, that the bigger the crowd is, the more successful the event is. Back in 1995, the organizers of the Million Man March told reporters they had over two million participants. When the United States Park Police estimated the crowd at 400,000, the organizers of the event threatened to sue the National Park Service.

Well, I've been very conscious since then of the very active "spinners" at many big events trying to get their estimates of the crowd to the news media. Both major parties do this.

During this presidential campaign, I covered rallies of virtually every major Democratic and Republican candidate in the race. At some rallies, a political operative would come by reporters and authoritatively say his or her estimate of the number of people in the crowd. At other rallies, we would get an e-mail. In many instances, what they told us was nothing but wishful guesses. And the reason I know that is because it is not hard to actually count some of these crowds and have a good mathematical estimate when you are done.

Case in point; this past Monday, at the Saxby Chambliss rallies in Georgia where Sarah Palin was the guest of honor. A Republican Congressman spoke before the rally started and stated that there were 4,000 people in the Savannah Civic Center. And indeed that's the number I heard on a local radio station after the rally. Problem with that reporting is that it wasn't even close to true. The number was so much lower that that. And I know that because I could count and estimate them pretty precisely. The absolute maximum there: 1500. Still a good crowd for a Senate rally, but not the number claimed.

And then there was the final Chambliss-Palin rally of the day at the Gwinnett Center Arena in Duluth, Georgia. Two major newspapers in Georgia reported there were 6,000 people there. And indeed that's the number campaign operatives were spreading around. Problem is this: the arena has a capacity of 13,000 people. Half of it was closed off to the rally. In the remaining 6,500 odd seats, there were entire sections that were empty. Several sections were half filled, four sections were mostly filled. There were hundreds of people on the ground; but it wasn't overly crowded, so from the camera perch I was on, you could get a decent count. Adding up the people on the ground and in the stands, I figured there were a minimum of 2000 people and to be generous, an absolute maximum of 3000.

Either way, we in the news media should not be in the business of reporting a number provided to us by a campaign as a fact. If the crowd number is an important part of the story, we should report the organizers' estimate, but if it's obviously wrong, we should add that it appears to be a generous estimate.

In my reporting on the Chambliss-Palin rallies, I talked about the crowds being much larger than Chambliss could have gotten on his own, and left out the numbers I had heard that lacked credibility. New York City police used to regularly give crowd estimates of some of the large rallies in the city. After years of complaints they were being biased against groups with "inaccurate" counts, they got out of the counting business. Political campaign operatives should follow their lead.

Filed under: Gary Tuchman • Raw Politics
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. J.V.Hodgson

    Finally, you guys are getting real and you should be publishing fact not PR or spin from campaigns. The classic was the Palin rally in Florida. Its simple really to correct this fascile discussion just tell the PR and Publicists that you will either
    1) Use police estimates, or other independent sources.
    2) Your own if the police do not give one ( and are represented there)
    3) Failing that the media does not publish unverified data as fact and says Party PR estimate!!

    December 4, 2008 at 1:50 am |
  2. lampe

    Parents took their children to McCain\Palin rallies because that is The Party that has some morals left. And, there was children at Obama's rallies. Alot of AA's took their children, so that they could witness history in the making. And, what difference does it matter now, how many people attended rallies? Where were you at, when the news media, failed to do their jobs, at answering questions about Obama's past and his friends? I guess that's not as important as how many people attend rallies.

    December 3, 2008 at 9:12 pm |
  3. ,Barbara-Dalton Ga

    I am glad you brought this to our attention, another thing that I noticed
    during the McCain rallies there appeared to be alot of children at those
    rallies so are counted. I know Obama had all ages represented but
    it just seemed that more children were present at McCain rallies.
    It just seems like a form of brain-washing by our the republican party,
    fill the kids mind with their views at a young age which makes it hard
    for them to really compare and form their own views. All well in my
    middle age I am becoming parnoid, fearful, among other things.

    December 3, 2008 at 6:34 pm |
  4. Lorie Ann, Buellton, California

    I think this election had far too many voices twisting the facts on every issue. I can't believe the number of times that I heard journalists, or pundits, who should be dealing in facts, get swayed by a blackberry message coming to them while on air. Spin is Spin and facts that are proven are very different truths to us viewers. I hope the future is less whirling the reality and more concrete before it's reported.

    Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif.

    December 3, 2008 at 6:03 pm |
  5. sharon from Indy

    Along with puzzling press releases, playing phone tag and wrestling with fax machines, getting information from PIOs, PR reps or whatever you call them is a crap shoot.

    Whenever "they" want something publicized "they" haunt journalists; whenever "they" want something silenced, "they "provide the information after print deadline. Thank goodness for the internet. Then again, many journalists are losing jobs because of the internet....and then go into PR!

    December 3, 2008 at 5:21 pm |