The landscape of Madison, Wis., is replete with picturesque backdrops President Barack Obama could have used for his final pre-election rally today. The towering state capitol has provided the nation two years’ worth of dramatic scenes during the public-employee protests. The capitol is perched between two giant twin lakes, Monona and Mendota, one of which is adorned with a breathtaking convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Instead, the Obama campaign chose to hold today’s rally in front of the Madison City-County building, a decaying monstrosity that looks more like an abandoned prison than a municipal building. It was an apt metaphor for a candidate that has seen better days.
The rally, which featured a friendly Bruce Springsteen playing a few acoustic songs, was supposed to be like 2004, when The Boss played near the Wisconsin capitol on behalf of John Kerry. One Democratic (and therefore probably biased) estimate put that crowd at near 80,000 — but today, the Obama/Springsteen ticket could only draw an estimated 18,000. That’s less than half the 36,000 people that showed up to support Obama alone the day after the first presidential debate in early October.
Of course, campaign-rally crowd size is a pretty unreliable way to predict elections, despite Twitter feeds being stuffed full with panoramic pictures of big rallies over the last few days. In 1960, John Kennedy gave a speech in Ohio that drew over 100,000 attendees; he lost the state by six percentage points. That same year, Richard Nixon had a similarly huge crowd in Atlanta; he lost Georgia by 25 points.
But the crowd in Madison today felt flat. Perhaps it was the below-freezing temperatures and the long hours the crowd had to stir. Perhaps the frequency of the grand Obama events in Madison have caused them to lose their luster. Maybe the majority of attendees had already voted, and therefore were resistant to campaigning. But save for the piped-in music, you could hear a pin drop in between speakers.
#more#Maybe it was the familiarity of Obama’s message. The speech he gave was nearly identical to the one he had delivered just 70 miles away in Milwaukee on Saturday. That day, Obama was flanked by pop songstress Katy Perry, who wore an Obama-themed lycra mini-dress during her performance, looking like an employee of a scuba-diver escort service. During her performance, Perry offered to retweet pictures of people who wore “cool outfits” to the polls to vote. Sadly, millions of people will be going to the polls on Tuesday dressed as “unemployed.”
It was Springsteen’s turn at the “aggrieved millionaire” pulpit today. In between four songs, The Boss railed against “blind greed,” and expressed disgust at the increasing income disparity between the rich and poor — a disparity to which his wealth, of course, contributes. Springsteen would have the crowd believe he was late to show because he was busy clipping coupons for fabric softener.
Following his last song, Springsteen wasted no time in introducing Obama. The president wasted no time in setting up his army of straw men, only to swat them away, one by one. He’s going to help veterans get jobs. He’s going to keep companies from dumping poison into our rivers and streams. He’s going to make sure kids can go to college. All of which, apparently, are opposed by Romney, who likely gets money from the “Coalition for Rancid Air” or something.
(In fact, we should just see if Obama’s cabal of straw men would be willing to guard him on the road — then we wouldn’t have to pay extra for the Secret Service.)
Obama’s speech was content-free, full of the gaseous bromides he has developed over the course of the past few months. He looked very tired, as he had in Milwaukee on Saturday. His raspy voice was flat and lacked emotion, and his face wore weeks of heavy travel on it. As he spoke, campaign advisers David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, and White House spokesman Jay Carney milled around the press area.
There are competing explanations as to why Obama is in Madison. His opponents say he’s in trouble in Wisconsin, and will need to squeeze out every single vote in the state. If he’s still trying to lock down Wisconsin, he’s not out getting new voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to their logic.
His backers suggest he just needed one more pre-election photo-op in one of the few places in America where he can count on a throng of people showing up, one final visual to show he still has the magic in a city where it will always be 2008 (or 1968, for that matter.)
— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.