Last week, I published an article discussing the 90-person Biden “rally” in Ottumwa, Iowa on December 21. Broadly, the idea was to look at how Biden’s retail politicking skills have improved (or not) over the last six months from the perspective of drawing crowds of supporters. Given that we can no longer trust the pollsters, perhaps crowd size can provide at least some meaningful predictive value.
Even as Biden clings desperately to the electability argument, pointing to surveys that suggest that he would lose to Trump, but not as badly as the other guys—and gals, if we count Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—it is still interesting to see what (if anything) has changed since the May-June timeframe.
Some readers took issue with my math—330 million Americans, 32 percent of them Democrats, 28 percent of those being proud (or perhaps shy) Biden supporters, and yet, by my count, only 90 Bidenites showed up for Biden’s December 21 event in Ottumwa, Iowa, out of a potential pool of 3,000 Bidenites in Wapello County. After all, my critics said, those 330 million Americans include children, infants, and very old people—and it’s unfair to count them among the throngs of Bidenites. Plus, there are only 153 million registered voters in the United States.
On the other hand, that 330 million doesn’t include many of the dead, who reliably vote Democrat from one election to another, and who no doubt will vote for Biden (or any other Democrat) in 2020.
I am not sure I agree with the registered voters part of the criticism—you don’t have to be registered to vote to show up to a Joe Biden mega-rally. If all your friends and neighbors are headed to a local Joe Biden event, you might be tempted to join them too, even if you haven’t yet registered to vote for Grandpa Joe. Also, the polls often sample “All Adults,” rather than “Registered Voters” or “Likely Voters,” making it difficult to compare apples to apples. But yes, whether one should count infants as potential Biden voters is a point worth pondering.
Nevertheless, to test a new and improved scientific approach to assessing enthusiasm for the former veep, I looked at the Biden mega-rally that took place two days later in Perry, Iowa on December 23. ’Twas the night before the night before Christmas, and lots of Iowa Bidenophiles were stirring. To read the media accounts of this particular Biden event, Trump should be jealous of Grandpa Joe’s newfound popularity on the stump.
“A capacity crowd flanked Joe Biden on all sides at his town hall in Perry Sunday evening” blared the Dallas County News. “There was a standing room only affair Sunday evening in Perry, as former Vice President Joe Biden brought his Presidential campaign to La Poste,” declared Raccoon Valley Radio. I mean, yeah, OK, I get it—Ol’ Joe is finally getting some traction. That “No Malarkey” bus is really starting to resonate with those left-wing Iowa sophisticates.
Scrutinizing the Photos Again
So I decided, what the heck, let’s do a deeper dive into that Biden mega-rally in Perry, Iowa. The Raccoon Valley Radio article has several photos, of which the last two are useful. The first thing we notice is that despite the “standing room only” crowd, lots of people are sitting in chairs. In fact, roughly one-third to one-half of the people in the room are sitting—which certainly gives new meaning to the words “standing room only.”
Another thing we notice in the photos is that despite this being a “capacity crowd,” there is plenty of space in the back. If 100 more people showed up, I have no doubt they could have been accommodated—especially if they had to settle for the “standing room only” deal.
But we wouldn’t want to reach sweeping conclusions without some quantitative data. So I painstakingly went through those last two photos in the Raccoon Valley Radio article, counting every head, every half-head, and everything that looks like a possible head behind another head. I count 150 people.
Now, the photos don’t cover 100 percent of the room, though they surely cover about two-thirds of the attendees—so let’s generously add 50 percent to the count, meaning that another 75 people is added to the total. In other words, we’ve got about 225 people attending the Joe Biden mega-rally in Perry. (My alma mater should be proud—this is where that electrical engineering degree from Cornell University comes in handy—doing the complicated math like this.) It’s not worth subtracting the Biden staffers from this number, since we aren’t after that kind of precision. Thus, we will stick with 225 Bidenophiles as a first-order estimate.
It so happens the event took place at La Poste, which advertises itself as a venue for weddings, graduation parties, and so on. Helpfully, their website tells us that the maximum capacity is 225 people. Presumably those 225 people would be seated at tables, but it gives us a good sanity check on the estimate above.
The point of this exercise is to contrast the reality of a Biden mega-rally against the glowing descriptions peddled by the pro-Biden media, that suggest stratospheric attendance numbers. How many readers are really going to go looking for photos and then count the number of people in the photo? And for some odd reason, neither article wanted to share the actual numbers with their readers, despite their reporters surely having a better head count than anything we could tally up.
How Do Biden’s Rallies Compare With Trump’s?
Now, it gets even more interesting, and much more scientific. Let’s compare the Biden mega-rally in Perry, Iowa with—for example—Trump’s June rally in Orlando. Orlando is in Orange County, Florida—in the 2016 election, out of a population of roughly 1.3 million people, 195,000 voted Republican. Orange County as a whole went for Hillary Clinton, as you would expect of a county with a large, deep blue Democratic city—so this is clearly hostile territory for Trump. Yet, 20,000 people, or 10 percent of Trump voters, showed up for his rally in June. If we take Trump’s current popularity among Republicans as 90 percent, then 11 percent of Trump voters showed up to see him—despite the rally being held in enemy territory.
What about Biden? Perry is in Dallas County, Iowa, where the county population is 90,000. The county went for Trump in 2016, but not by that much, with 15,701 people voting Democrat, and 19,339 voting Republican. The county’s population actually rose from 66,000 in 2010 to 90,000 in 2018—presumably due to Des Moines residents’ outmigration to the suburbs—suggesting a bluer tint to the county today than in 2016. In any event, if Biden has 20 percent of the 2016 Iowa Democratic voters, that means there are about 3,140 Bidenites in Dallas County, of whom 225—or 7 percent—showed up.
From the perspective of historical Biden performance, this is actually edge-of-the-envelope spectacular. Grandpa Joe motivating 225 people to come and see him is like a Chevy Nova suddenly squeezing out Ferrari-like performance from its 74 horsepower engine. And in terms of percentages, at first glance, it seems at least comparable to Trump?
Or does it?
Comparing Biden’s skills on the stump to Trump’s is probably not something most Democrats want to be caught doing, lest it drive them to depression.
In reality, it’s much worse than that.
Dallas County is essentially an outer northwest suburb of Des Moines and Perry isn’t exactly Republican-leaning cornfield country. Polk County, where Des Moines is located, has a population of about 480,000, of whom 120,000 voted Democrat in 2016. Perry is about 25 minutes from Des Moines—surely there are plenty of Des Moines Bidenites who wouldn’t want to miss a chance to see their hero in person?
So let’s say, of those 120,000 Polk County Democratic voters, 15,000 live close enough and should be motivated enough. This is classic Biden country, so our pool of potential Bidenites doubles, and Biden’s “share” of motivated Bidenites drops by half, to 3.5 percent. Anticipating the argument that Biden just didn’t rent a big enough place to accommodate all his hard-core fans, if Biden really thought more people would show up, there is nothing that prevented him from renting a bigger space for the event.
Don’t like Trump’s Orlando rally as a reference point? Then we can take the December 10 rally at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Hershey is in Dauphin County (pop. 277,000), an area that has been trending bluer in the last few years. In 2016, 60,813 people voted for Trump, and 64,706 people voted for Hillary—Hillary carried the county by a nontrivial 49.4 percent to 46.5 percent. Hershey is not San Francisco, but it’s hardly what you would call “Trump Country.” This is not Warren going to a college campus faculty lounge, or Biden going to a union hall to do his “working-class Joe” shtick, or Pete Buttigieg visiting a Norwegian gay bar—this is unfriendly territory for Trump.
So, did the Trump campaign make a big mistake in site selection? The arena seats 12,500. Take a look at the image here—the arena is packed. Using the patented “George Bardmesser scientific approach” above, more than 20 percent of Dauphin County Trump supporters showed up for his rally.
An Odd Situation
So comparing Biden’s skills on the stump to Trump’s is probably not something most Democrats want to be caught doing, lest it drive them to depression.
What about other Democrats? Let’s take Warren—just to pick one at random. She held an event on December 2, at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Looking at the pictures here (particularly image No. 14 in the photo gallery), it is fairly obvious that there are far more than 225 people on hand. So 225 people may have been a blockbuster attendance number for Grandpa Joe, but it’s nothing to brag about compared to other candidates. (In all fairness, Warren has had plenty of events with much smaller attendance than the one in Iowa City.)
The point of all these numbers and percentages is not to demonstrate facility with a calculator, or to treat these percentages as gospel—they are at best back-of-the-envelope guesstimates of something. The point is to contrast the two different universes inhabited by Trump and Biden. One is unpopular, widely reviled, impeached, clueless, and stumbles from crisis to crisis even as he is reaching the end of his rope and the walls are closing in on him. The other is a distinguished elder statesman, broadly popular among many demographics, liked by many voters, generally regarded as the most electable, and leading in countless national polls.
And so, once again, we have the odd situation of an electable, likeable, popular Democratic front-runner who sort of fills a mid-sized wedding hall in the friendliest of territories, and a universally unpopular Trump, who goes behind enemy lines and fills stadiums. Keep that in mind the next time Quinnipiac or ABC release a poll that says that “Biden leads Trump by 15 points.”