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Obama Campaign Was 'Trawling for Warm Bodies' to Fill Half-Empty Kick-Off Rally

2:19 PM, Aug 20, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
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President Barack Obama's reelection campaign paid nearly $93k to hold a kick-off event at the Ohio State University in May. And, at the time, photos of the event showed large sections of the arena unoccupied, causing the New York Times to write that the kick-off event "had the feeling of a concert by an aging rock star."

stadium kickoff

A new ebook published today by Glenn Thrush explains that the empty seats that marred the expensive kick-off event were not because the Obama campaign did not try to fill them:

“In the week or so leading up to the Obama campaign’s official kickoff rally on May 5 at Ohio State University’s basketball arena in Columbus, Obama’s campaign had put out a maximum effort to fill the Schottenstein Center’s eighteen thousand seats. Trawling for warm bodies wasn’t an exercise Team Obama had experienced much in 2008. That was Hillary’s problem. Filling a venue wasn’t even a major issue in the Democratic famine year of 2010, when an Obama midterm rally held on OSU’s quad drew an unexpectedly large crowd. At the time, excited Obama aides hooked up reporters with local officials who confirmed the total— thirty thousand.

"Dan Balz, the veteran Washington Post political sage, was so impressed by the showing he asked the operator of a mechanical lift to raise him thirty feet above the throng for a better view. The 2012 kickoff didn’t come close. Obama’s Ohio team figured the downshift to a relatively small venue would guarantee success and assured Chicago the place would be full. As the sun rose on their campaign kickoff day and the crowd began to walk in, they realized, to their horror, that they were going to fall sharply short of the mark. With Obama and Michelle jetting in on Air Force One— and the national media filing in— organizers, gnawing on fingernails, realized only about fourteen thousand people would show. That left about four thousand empty seats ringing the upper deck.

"There was one more thing: Obama would literally be staring at the empties, which were intentionally clustered outside the view of the camera pit facing his lectern. About an hour before Obama spoke, editors with OSU’s student newspaper, The Lantern, tweeted: ‘Ushers are asking audience members to move accordingly in order for seats to look full for TV.’ Organizers tried to shrug it off. 'Mitt Romney’s largest crowd in the last year was three thousand,' a Democratic official told me at the time. That was true— technically. And Romney’s tiny turnout at an earlier event held in a roped-off corner of a Detroit football stadium got as much, if not more, negative press. But for a campaign struggling to recapture its fire, the empty seats at Obama’s announcement added up to a serious downer. ‘It was,’ one of the event organizers told me, ‘a stark reminder of how different a year it was going to be.’” 

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