During the Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama held a rally and town hall in the livestock pavilion of a fairground in rural Albany, Oregon. As I sat in the back of the hall listening to the speech with the other credentialed press, an Obama aide came quietly along the rows of tables where we were sitting, tapping each of us on the shoulder then holding his Blackberry out so we could read it. On the small screen was an email, reporting the local fire marshal's estimate of the crowd's size. Each reporter nodded, the aide moved along, and the attendance figure was inserted into each reporter's story without further verification. Yes, good journalists need to remain a little cynical, second-guessing the campaigns on substantive issues, but things like the fire marshal's estimate generally go without question.
Until now. Bloomberg is reporting that the McCain campaign has been lying to reporters about its crowd sizes on a regular basis - and lying, not just about the sizes of the crowds, estimates of which are somewhat subjective anyway, but about where those estimates come from. For example, at one outdoor rally in Virginia, McCain aide Kimmie Lipscomb not only told reporters that the event drew 23,000 people, but claimed that the local fire marshal had made the estimate -- just like the Obama aide did at the rally in Oregon that I attended. But when Bloomberg's reporters, Lorraine Woellert and Jeff Bliss, spoke with the fire marshal later, he explained that not only did his office not provide that estimate, but it does not even bother estimating crowd sizes for outdoor events. One reporter estimated the crowd that day at approximately 8,000 -- only about one-third of the "official" count the McCain camp provided to reporters.
At other appearances, the campaign has claimed that attendance figures were based on the Secret Service's count of the number of people who had passed through its security checkpoints -- a seemingly reliable source. But, according to the Bloomberg report, a Secret Service spokesman said the McCain campaign was once again cooking the books: "We didn't provide any numbers to the campaign."
These misrepresentations occurred both before and after Sarah Palin joined the campaign, which has boosted attendance numbers but not to the level the campaign has been stating.
The Obama campaign, which has drawn significantly larger crowds than McCain has (including an unexpected 78,000 at a waterfront park in Portland, Or. and a full house at Denver's Ivesco Field/Mile High Stadium), publicized the Bloomberg article in a press release this morning captioned, "Is There Anything They Won't Lie About?" But the underlying electoral reality -- that McCain isn't drawing substantial crowds -- may be more important than either this new evidence of the campaign's dishonesty or its decreasing credibility with the press, which in past years has tended to favor McCain by suppressing stories of his hot temper and other unfavorable reports.
McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds tried to dismiss the story by telling reporters that "Since day one, this campaign has been consistent that we're not going to win or lose based on crowd size but the substance of John McCain's record." But the real issue is the crowds McCain will draw at the polls on November 4 -- and how the Republicans will respond if those crowds aren't to their liking. There's plentiful evidence that some vote counts in both the 2000 and 2004 elections were manipulated to favor the Republican candidate. If McCain can't "win ... based on crowd size" at the polls, will he try to claim that the "official" figures are higher than they really are, based on inflated vote tallies derived from paperless Diebold voting machines and similar "hackable" devices? That may be a "tin hat" fear -- but no one would have suspected any responsible, reasonably honest campaign would dissemble to reporters about simple things like fire marshal estimates, either.
UPDATE, Sun., Sept. 14: Even after this story broke, the McCain campaign continued lying about the crowds it's drawing. NBC/NJ's Matthew Berger reports that Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki -- who chairs the McCain campaign in Nevada -- told the audience in Carson City's Pony Express Pavilion Saturday that 10,000 people were in attendance to see Sarah Palin -- but park officials told reporters that the arena holds a maximum of 3,500.