On February 12, Barack Obama held a rally at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin -- a basketball stadium that holds 17,000 people. The headlines the next day: Obama Draws Tens-of-Thousands for Speech at Kohl Center.
Obama's crowds are so big that they have become the central story of this campaign, of this election, and quite possibly of this very young political century.
Numbers these large are more symbolic than algebraic. These numbers are not about people in seats. They are about power -- a very clear, recognizable, indisputable form of power. Obama and only Obama has it.
Despite all the critiques that he lacks experience, lacks specifics, and lacks backbone, the fact that he continues to draw 'tens-of-thousands' puts his campaign in a category all by itself. It is the category of power.
Hillary Clinton is not in it. John McCain is not in it. Mike Huckabee is not in it. Barack Obama is in that category by himself.
What does this mean for the Democratic nomination process?
It means that the delegates race is by-and-large over. Even if Hillary Clinton pulls off huge victories in Ohio and Texas and bring the delegate count close, Obama's huge rallies will remain the winning number in the campaign.
It means that at this stage, Hillary must do more than win: she must prove that she, too, is in that category of power -- that she is, in fact, more powerful than Obama. It is an unenviable task -- a challenge with no apparent path towards or blueprint for success.
John McCain's challenge is no less daunting. Barely able to draw enough voters to win his own party's nomination, McCain must somehow show the American public that he embodies a form of power greater than his opponent. It is hard to see exactly what that could be for McCain. A soldier? A statesman? An elder? None of these combined can challenge the power of Obama's numbers.
The power in Obama's numbers is phenomenon hard to ignore and hard to overvalue. Most people are unfamiliar with it -- have neither seen it in their lifetime, let alone experienced it. The power of Obama's numbers is something that most Americans do not understand -- do not know where to begin to understand it.
In a world where just about anyone can link over to YouTube and watch an Obama speech, for example, what is it that moves people to wait out in the cold, then pack into a crowded auditorium, to stand in line and shove through crowds?
The draw of the candidate is certainly part of it. But so too is the allure of being a part of the crowd, of the movement -- of standing amidst and feeling connected to a massive gathering of people, and of having a story to tell afterwards.
Ask an Obama supporter what they get from attending these massive rallies and they typically offer a version of the 'hope and change' Obama campaign message. There is certainly nothing wrong with those responses. They are jubilant, full of excitement, infections. And the fact that so many people can repeat Obama's core campaign theme with passion is itself a form of power not seen by the Democratic party in decades, if ever.
Still, the boiler-plate quality of those kinds of responses has garnered its share of criticism from right and left. 'Hope will not bring change to our mounting problems,' the argument goes. 'Experience is what we need, not rhetoric about change.'
Those arguments have some merit. Americans are fundamentally pragmatic people. In our collective gut, we feel more at home striving than soaring.
What the critiques of Obama ignore is the fact that his massive numbers constitute a form of power greater than the most nuanced deconstruction of a campaign theme. In the face of a feeling of solidarity shared by tens-of-thousands, analytical arguments shatter into pieces and fall to the ground.
Obama's numbers, in other words, are far more than the sum of his crowds, much more than the schedule of stadiums filled beyond capacity. Obama's numbers are a symbolic logic that moves his campaign to a place that is beyond words, a cognitive frame that brings a sense of order and understanding to a whole range of political questions, and a durable presence more likely to increase in size and scope than to dissipate in a gust of campaign or media wind.
For Republicans and Democrats alike -- for supporters and detractors of Obama -- the question coming into focus is not whether Obama will win or lose, but how will Obama's power change our politics? What impact will it have on our country?
Will it end the Iraq occupation? Will it bring an end to America's fears about health coverage? Will it make our schools better, our children smarter, our air cleaner?
New power undoubtedly brings change. But what change, how, and to when?
Beyond the charisma of the candidate, those questions shed light on the excitement that so many feel in the face of Obama's numbers.
What answers they yield, only time can tell.
Cross posted from Frameshop.