For the primary season, it’s all over but the shouting, to use a cliche. But this one works because this is a good time to evaluate what happened – and most of that analysis will be based on policies and platforms. There will be shouting, because that’s pretty much how people discuss politics.
One key feature this year has been the insurgent outsider candidate. Call him Sanders or Trump, one thing was the same – outsiders rallying people to a movement, a cause, a rebellion. A tactical key to this has been the rally itself – a large venue filled with cheering supporters whipping each other up into a frenzy for the cause. Every campaign has them, but Sanders’ effort came to be defined by them.
Is the mega-rally a new feature of what will define a campaign, particularly an insurgent one? Is it a good idea? How does it work? Why did this become a feature? These are all questions worth considering as we look at how the Bern became a blaze.
You say you want a revolution? Stop and think about what comes to mind when you hear the name Bernie Sanders. The first images may be the unkemp hair or his straight talk that never wavers or varies. But the image that has to come to mind quickly is that of the revolution – the sea of enthusiastic people, many of them young, who cheer him on.
The movement is bigger than him, after all, and we know this because of those rallies. Thousands of people showed up not so much for the old guy but for what he represents – real change, real reform, real hope, real opportunity. It just wouldn’t be a revolution without them.
It seems almost heretical to even suggest that these rallies may be a Bad Idea after all, but they may not be that great. What could possibly be wrong?
They are expensive. Campaign receipts have shown that renting the big stadia and arenas runs well into the tens of thousands of dollars. There isn’t much information on the total cost, however, including permits, security, staging, transportation, and lodging. The best guess that we have comes from the rent. The Colorado Convention Center, for example, cost them $23k in rent for an event that rallied 18k people.
Sanders spent a total of $1.6M in February for what looks like a total of 12 rallies – the exact number is hard to come by. The total attendance was on the order of 250k people. With all the costs these rallies run about $7 per person – not bad, but each one is still more expensive than all the ads they will be buying ahead of the Oregon Primary ($123k).
They don’t get the media attention. What’s the purpose of money in a campaign? If you ask talking heads, they’ll immediately go into “ad buys” for one simple reason – they have no idea what they are talking about. What wins elections is the organizing and get out the vote (GOTV) movements that come from identifying your supporters. It’s what pundits call the “ground game” before they quickly move on to something less important. These operations don’t take a lot of cash, but they do take some. It’s important to have some media attention, however, which is why Sanders is still buying a lot of ads.
Rallies don’t generate too much media attention unless you have controversy. If someone is injured or you say something truly outrageous it will be picked up by the local news. That’s Trump territory, however, and Sanders didn’t go there. A real rally for a real revolution? For media attention, you might as well have bought ads. And those ads aren’t worth much without the organization.
So why did Sanders’ campaign come to focus on rallies? There are definitely positives:
They might pay for themselves. OK, so $7 a clip is pretty expensive. But if everyone who goes home from the rally immediately gives you $10 you’re ahead. That seems to be the math that fueled the incredible fundraising that Sanders has done this year. He’s raised $180 million, a rather incredible sum, and appears to be spending it just as fast – essentially “living off the land”, to use an antique military term.
The problem here is that there is no direct connection between the money and the rally. You can’t charge admission for these and you can’t have cash sales because every dollar the campaign takes in has to have a name beside it – thanks to the limited campaign finance reform we have. The tie between the rally and the money is limited.
Rallies give you an edge in social media. While they don’t reach out to new people, the rallies sure whip up the loyal fans. The image that everyone in the world is supporting Bernie comes easily when you see tens of thousands of people whipped into a fervor. Turning them loose on facebook gives you – well, it gives you what I wake up to every day.
How many times have we seen the lamenting memes – “With this many people turning out for Bernie, we should be winning by a landslide!” The implication is that Clinton can only be winning due to voter fraud, given the rallies. But if you do the math, no more than 1 to 1.5 million people have attended a Sanders rally, and his vote total as of today is about 9 million. No more than 11-17% of his total supporters are represented in these rallies – to riff off the meme, if those are the only people who voted for him he’d have lost in a terrible landslide.
In fact, if everyone who has voted for Sanders stood in one line, two feet apart, it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York – and back as far as Chicago. For all the complaints about voter suppression it only feels like you were in a line that long when you voted. And, for more perspective, the total amount of money Sanders is spending is still $20 per vote – about 5 times what Trump is spending.
So how does the rally come down as a tool?
It certainly worked for Sanders, up to a point. It gave him star mojo and it empowered his supporters. The latter was a great tool for social media, for sure, so as a replacement for media buys, which he also did, it may be worth it. It also helps the ground game by generating zealous volunteers.
It is likely that the rally will be with us as a primary campaigning and organizing tool for all these advantages. Yet it’s not something that can or should be copied without a lot of thought. For one thing, it’s unlikely to scale down to, say, a congressional election very easily – at least not without a major star to anchor the event.
It may be justified to use the old fashioned rally more than we had become used to recently. But as a primary tool for the entire campaign? Even Sanders didn’t rely on it completely, and clearly used it primarily as a way of generating the cash for serious media buys and basic organizing.
We can only hope that “insurgency” does not become defined by the ability to draw huge, cheering crowds because it’s unlikely that this model can be copied easily. The raw cash that powers the strategy makes it difficult at best for a true “insurgent” operating at a level below messiah – er, President.