On Friday October 22, President Barack Obama held a rally at the University of Southern California.
This was one of the rare times that the president will campaign in heavily Democratic California; indeed, Mr. Obama may not hold such a rally in California for many years, if ever again.
This blogger therefore summoned up the energy to attend such a rare event. The following post is a collection of personal, somewhat random notes about what political rallies are really like.
The first thing one notices about Democratic rallies is that they are quite diverse, much more so than the Tea Party rallies people see on television. Given that the Tea Party really is just a bunch of amped-up Republicans, and that 89% of Republican voters in 2008 were white, the homogeneous nature of Tea Party rallies is not very surprising.
Minorities were much more present in Mr. Obama’s rally (and not just African-Americans). The Democratic Party, especially in places like Southern California, consists of a coalition of minorities mixed with white liberals. One really saw this with the people who came out to see Mr. Obama.
There was also quite a bit of diversity in class, from wealthy USC college students to working-class adults who came from the surrounding neighborhood. These were people who would normally not interact, but whom had a common interest in seeing the president. The age distribution was weighted (unsurprisingly, given the rally’s location) heavier on the younger side of the scale. I did not see that many elderly folks. To be fair, waiting in line for five hours and standing for three more is probably a thing that younger people are better at.
There were several interesting things with regards to turn-out. These are generalizations, so beware that they are not the most accurate of things. Black turn-out seemed high, as did Asian turn-out. White and Hispanic turn-out seemed generally lower. A personal count pegged whites at something like one-third of the crowd. A lot of the Asians seemed to be on the younger, college student side of things, while many of the blacks were families who brought kids along.
It is hard to say what the racial representation would have been in a “perfect” sample. One has to compare the racial composition of USC with that of Los Angeles County itself, which are quite different. In any case, I would guess that Asians and blacks punched above their weight in both categories. Whites punched slightly above their weight in terms of LA’s demographics, but far below their weight in terms of USC demographics. Latinos, on the other hand, punched above their weight in terms of USC demographics but far below in terms of LA demographics.
One frustrating thing about the rally, and something the media does not talk about, was the difficulty of actually seeing the politicians who were speaking.
This picture indicates the position this individual was at. The tiny black square is Mr. Obama:
As the picture above makes fairly apparent, Mr. Obama was quite a-ways distant. It should be noted that although Mr. Obama was distant, he was still somewhat visible – the camera’s quality is just a lot worse than the quality of the human eye.
The picture was taken with me holding my arms up. As one can see, most people have their heads directed upwards. This is because everybody was trying to get a tiny glimpse of the president, instead of somebody else’s head. It was not an easy endeavor, and there was a lot of milling as people moved this way and that (or just gave up). A recommendation to future rally organizers: make the stage higher. For the tens of thousands who didn’t get to the front, it’s impossible to see the person who’s speaking.
The crowd was fairly quiet. The shouts of “Yes we can!” that people hear on television generally originate from the front; it doesn’t carry too well to the back. On the other hand, there was excitement everywhere when Mr. Obama came onto the stage.
The Rally Itself
The rally organizers naturally scheduled the president to come in the end, and there were a lot of Democratic speakers and bands before him. The themes were generally about the importance of organizing and the importance of voting. There was, of course, a lot of rhetoric about why Democrats rock and Republicans don’t.
One of the better speakers was an Indian immigrant who talked about how she became a citizen to vote for Mr. Obama. It was an inspiring and emotion-felt story. Former governor Jerry Brown was also a hit. Mr. Brown began by saying that “I promise to keep it short” – and he did! To this date, Mr. Brown is the only politician this blogger has seen who actually kept that promise.
Then Mr. Obama came on, and everybody naturally went crazy. It was pretty clear that the main draw was the president. At one point Mr. Obama declared that “You didn’t come here to see me.” Given that probably 95% of the crowd came only to see Mr. Obama, the words inspired a chuckle or two from me.
Interestingly, the president as a speaker in real life isn’t much different from television. His jokes carry somewhat better than on television, and the crowd is sometimes like an instrument with which his words play music upon. At one point Mr. Obama accused Republicans of seeking 20% cuts in education. This was a point that a New York Times article had declared to be absolutely false, an article which this individual had read the previous day. Nevertheless, I booed on cue in excitement, along with the rest of the crowd.
Reflections on Mr. Obama
At the end of the speech, the president began a cumulative oration of his accomplishments – one of the tricks that makes him such an effective speechmaker.
I thought, then, about what Barack Obama represents. Many journalists – and the president himself – have characterized him as a Rorschach’s blot of peoples wishes and desires.
As I watched the president talk about the American Dream and about change, it occurred to me that he still is that accumulation of wishes and desires. Even as Democrats look certain to face losses of historic proportions, Mr. Obama can draw a crowd of 37,000 supporters to wait seven, eight hours to see him. It is what Obama represents. To many Americans the president is a symbol, a hope that they too can make it. It is a hope that America can change too, in such a way thought unimaginable a mere four years ago. No other politician – not Bill Clinton, not Sarah Palin – has this power, and this enduring loyalty.
It is a reason why Republicans who underestimate Mr. Obama do so at their peril.