Boston Globe: Obama measuring campaign success not just in cash, but crowds too
Presidential hopeful Barack Obama is measuring his success not just in poll numbers, money raised or endorsements. For the Democratic senator, one barometer of his campaign is crowds -- something Obama highlights at every opportunity.
"We have been attracting these enormous crowds all across the country," he said on Sunday during a town hall-style meeting. "There is a sense of urgency, and I think it's why people are showing up in record numbers, not just to my events, but to political events all over the country."
During his routine stump speech, Obama refers to rallies where 20,000 people or more pack fields to hear the first-term senator speak.
Here, in sparsely populated northern New Hampshire, turnout typically pales when compared to venues farther south. But Obama's appeal -- and aggressive organizing machine -- are defying expectations.
"I've been to rock concerts. I've seen crowds this size. But for a candidate? No," said Jay Smith, a Madison resident who stood outside for an hour to get into a Conway middle school gym on Sunday.
The Obama campaign said Smith was one of 1,200 in the standing room-only venue. Later that day, almost 300 people turned out for a cold, overcast, evening ice cream social in Berlin. And another 250 people packed into a stuffy community center here in Littleton.
Obama rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton launched her New Hampshire campaign in Berlin. Clinton's town hall-style meeting there drew 500 people. And former Sen. John Edwards, another Democrat seeking his party's nomination, headlined the Grover Cleveland dinner in Bartlett earlier this month. That event brought 300 people.
Large as they are, the crowds could take away from the retail politicking the first primary state is famous for and that candidates often praise.
"The reality is, whenever you have one of these rock-star candidates, it's just not a natural retail experience because there's a large media contingent. You can't help it," said Dean Spiliotes, director of research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. "There's only so much he can do to keep people away. It shows a lot of interest, momentum and mobilizes the organization, which if you're not going to have these one-on-one experiences, the flip side is to mobilize a lot of people."
Talking with a bus full of reporters chasing him and his Secret Service detail on the two-day trip, Obama said his campaign plans more unannounced visits to diners and Main Streets for such retail experiences, including one on Monday in Bath.
At The Brick Store, billed as the nation's oldest general store, Obama and his family walked inside, ordered sandwich and sampled fudge.
For a hopeful whose nomination is hardly a certainty, Obama frequently draws bigger crowds than his 2008 rivals, although Clinton attracted 3,000 to Concord High School during a February visit to New Hampshire. At Obama's Springfield, Ill., campaign kickoff brought an estimated 15,000 people to a cold, outdoor event. He says 9,000 people showed up in Los Angeles. Another 20,000 showed up in Atlanta and Austin.
"It's what you call a high-class problem," Obama joked with reporters on Monday.
It's also a smart campaign strategy, experts said.
"There are very few hard numbers at this stage of the games. There's dollars and there's crowds. There are polling numbers, but they're notoriously fluid. The crowds are something campaigns try to hang something on," said Dante Scala, an associate professor political science at Saint Anselm College. "It tends to reinforce the notion he's a top-tier candidate. When (Sen. Chris) Dodd gets 100 at a house party, it all looks small in comparison."
That was the idea, starting even with his first trip to New Hampshire as a candidate earlier this year. Within eight hours of announcing the trip, all 2,500 tickets to an event in Durham had been given away, and still more came.
It's a sense that aides hoped would repeat itself later Monday, with a rally at Dartmouth College. Billed as a rally, the event kept more than 5,000 audience members standing in sweltering sun.
"People want to be involved. They just have to be asked," said Obama, standing on a lawn between two college buildings, a packed crowd before him.
"I felt he lived up to his reputation," said Chris Healy, who drove from Norwich, Vt. to hear Obama's half-hour speech. "I was surprised how many people were here. I thought it'd be mostly college students. For a small town, this is huge."
Healy said the remarks hit highly emotional topics -- war, energy independence and serving veterans.
"We are in the middle of a war that should have never been waged," Obama shouted. "On this Memorial Day, when we remember the fallen, we must insist we revere the troops and understand the enormous sacrifices they have made."