COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa – Joe Biden recently spoke to a crowd of about 500 people at Grass Wagon, a warehouse event space here. But just a few weeks earlier, another leading competitor, Elizabeth Warren, put more than 1,100 in the same spot.
At the same time, in Des Moines, a more intimate crowd of about 100 people were at the Platinum Signature Barber Shop to hear Cory Booker hoarsely deliver his speech. While the attendees talked about locally prepared barbecue, the New Jersey senator ended the event with a makeshift charity initiative – shaving the heads of three people and personally donating to their preferred nonprofit organization.
At a time when President Donald Trump has made crowd size a proxy for popularity – and while he continues to brag about the social media of his power to attract crowds – Democrats rushing to challenge him in 2020 vary widely in their way. approach to campaign events. and building crowds.
While some, like Warren and his progressive colleague Bernie Sanders, clearly thrive on big rallies, others, including Biden, hold mostly smaller meetings. It is in these situations, these campaigns say, that voter interaction happens best.
"Crowds provide, first of all, a snapshot of the energy of a campaign," said Matt Paul, who led Hillary Clinton's winning effort in Iowa in 2016. "Aren't they just attracting big crowds? But are those crowds enthusiastic? are they responding to the candidate's key messages? "
Warren's crowds have grown even larger, as polls show his candidacy gaining momentum. She held a rally in New York's famous Washington Square Park, with an estimated 20,000 crowd, and then spent another four hours posing for photos of 4,000 people lining up after the speech. The "selfie line" has become a hallmark of Warren's campaign appearances.
Warren's crowds caught Trump's eye. "They make such big stories about the size of Elizabeth & Pocahontas & Warren's crowd, adding a lot more people than there really are. And yet, my crowds, which are much larger, have no coverage. false! " he tweeted last month.
Large crowds, of course, do not always predict a winning bid. In 2016, Clinton outnumbered Sanders by the Democratic nomination, although the Vermont senator consistently drew larger crowds. But Clinton lost to Trump in the general election, never having attracted the kind of enthusiastic participation in his rallies that Trump – or Sanders – attracted to them.
Biden's team insists that their relatively modest crowds are mainly by design.
"Our campaign is an ideal spot for participants so that the vice president can personally connect with all the voters in the room," said Julia Krieger, Biden's Iowa communications director.
This "sweet spot" usually ranges from 150 to 400 participants, which usually limits the level of emotion compared to the crowds of thousands that Warren usually draws.
However, Warren's photographic speeches in which supporters sometimes wait hours for a selfie with the candidate help bring some intimacy to their big rallies, Paul noted.
"This is giving her direct time with key voters to listen to them, to engage with them directly, and this is important and it personalizes these big events," he said.
Biden's campaign aides may seem defensive when discussing the size of the crowd.
"There is often an implicit suggestion that because voters believe Joe Biden is the most elected Democratic candidate, there is also no genuine passionate support for his candidacy and his message. He is wrong," a senior Biden official told NBC News.
The official said what Biden could lose in crowd size is offset by voter enthusiasm, measured not only by head counts but also by demographic surveys, especially among African Americans. "Enthusiasm cannot be defined only by those who excite white progressives," the official said.
Strategists say that involvement with multiple voter blocks is more important than participants who appear in any particular room. Older people, for example, vote in large numbers over other populations, but may be less likely to participate in campaign rallies.
"As you look at the size of the crowds and the energy that exists, you should also see who isn't there," Paul said. "Which voters aren't you reaching? How does this sync with the poll, poll, and focus groups you're doing?"
Sanders, meanwhile, has changed his approach to crowds compared to 2016.
In addition to large rallies – exemplified by a recent crowd of over 10,000 in Denver – the candidate balances the variety of events, often attending casual backyard ice cream social events and smaller town halls. Its goal is to detail issues that affect specific communities and enable more audience engagement.
Another candidate, Kamala Harris, curates crowd size around the time of day. The campaign usually hosts mid-size events of 150 people or less during the day, saving larger rallies at night when more voters can attend.
Julián Castro, among others, is trying to create crowds on the sidelines of "cattle requests" from multiple candidates in the early voting states. Its number of crowds has increased over time, but is often connected to a larger event, such as a state labor convention, which attracts hundreds of attendees.
Booker goes for small and medium events.
"Overall, we want voters to walk away after meeting Cory," Booker, Iowa State Director Mike Frosolone told NBC News. "Whenever Cory gets a chance to speak individually, or in smaller groups, we see people participating in the campaign. Most importantly, we see crowds growing over time and that is absolutely what is happening to us."
Pete Buttigieg, which was almost unknown to most voters just a few months ago, has attracted large crowds that continue to grow. The mayor of South Bend has begun to organize modest meetings in the backyards of Iowa, and his appearances eventually reveal numbers by the hundreds.
While the Buttigieg campaign still sends emails, tweets, and invites voters to invite them to events, campaign campaigners say crowd size is not their main focus.
"Our field organization is not about creating crowds," said Brendan McPhillips, director of Buttigieg State in Iowa. "It's about capturing the crowds when they appear and connecting them to our organizing program."
Andrew Yang largely relied on digital tools to produce crowds in the real world. The supporters of the businessman, who call themselves "Yang Gang", have largely gathered on social media platforms and through the Joe Rogan podcast, popular with Reddit and 4chan users.
Yang drew a young and diverse audience of 175 at a party in North Hampton, New Hampshire in August, outperforming many other candidates at similar events in Granite State.
While Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting states naturally attract most candidate visits, places that do not receive the "first country" are eager to see them. Warren was recently greeted by 12,000 supporters in Minnesota, while 2,500 people joined Sanders at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, the same week.
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