11/05/2012 03:22 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Presidential Election 2012: Huey Long Populism, Crowd Wars, Fraying Nerves In Campaigns' Final Days

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - A full day with both presidential campaigns on their final weekend yielded three broad observations:

President Obama and Mitt Romney are closing out with top-line messages that boil down to Huey Long populism versus Ronald Reagan optimism. The moods in and around the respective campaigns were markedly different -- a revealing sign of the advantages of incumbency. And the Obama campaign appears to have been more skillful and strategic in its use of rallies in the closing days.

The Huffington Post jumped into the Obama bubble for three stops in Ohio on Friday, and on the Romney plane for rallies in four different states on Sunday. Here's what we learned:

Populist Versus Optimist

Obama's minor verbal slip on Friday, when he told a crowd in Springfield, Ohio that "voting is the best revenge," was an off note. But it was in character with the overall impression that Obama gave in the new stump speech that he began giving on Thursday.

On Friday, as the president spoke at three different rallies -– all in Ohio –- he used the word "fight" a dozen times in each speech. That word was a setup for the heart of his speech, where he talked about being a "champion" for those in America who don't have political or financial power.

"The folks at the very top in this country, they don't need another champion in Washington. They’ve got lobbyists. They’ve got PACs. They’ve always got a seat at the table," Obama said in Springfield, near Dayton. "But people who need a champion are the Americans whose letters I read every night."

Obama ticked off a long list of such people: a "laid-off furniture worker" going back to school at 55, a restaurant owner who needs a loan "after the bank turned him down," "cooks and waiters," "cleaning staff," and of course, it being Ohio, autoworkers.

The president, who is now 51 years old, has always cast himself as the protector of the middle class. But there was new rhetoric in this speech, and new fire behind it, partly driven by the irritation evident among the Obama campaign that Romney was trying to run, in the final weeks, on a theme of "change" -- Obama's trademark slogan in 2008. A big part of the president's speech this week became a contrast portion where he argued that Romney was not offering "real change."

"Real change" was part of Romney's core message, and has been for over a week. It's part of his argument that Obama is, essentially, all talk.

"Accomplishing real change is not something I just talk about. It's something I have done and I do," Romney said in Cleveland on Sunday afternoon.

Romney also debuted a new speech this week, starting Friday in Wisconsin. To watch the 65-year-old former Massachusetts governor on the stump on Sunday was to notice how dramatically better a speaker he has become over the course of the last year.

He has improved, in particular, at closing speeches by building the audience's applause to a crescendo. But his message in the final days has also been uplifting. Romney ended his remarks in Cleveland with a rousing call to vote for him based on hope in a better future.

"He's offering excuses. I've got a plan. I can't wait for us to get going. He wants us to settle. Americans don't settle. We build. We aspire. We dream. We achieve," Romney said. "The door to a brighter future is there. It's open. It's waiting for us. I need your vote. I need your help. Walk with me to a better future."

Jeff Wittiene, 57, called Romney's speech "an inspiring vision" and said he had noticed the candidate's improvement.

"In the last two weeks, he's taken into another level. In the last week, another level. In the last three days, he has got Reagan poltergeist. It's bizarre," said Wittiene.

But Romney also flagged by the end of the day. His windswept speech in the cold at an outdoor rally around 7 p.m. in the Philadelphia suburbs seemed rushed, and by the time he reached this key part of Virginia for a late-night rally around 9:30 p.m. in an airport hangar, his speech was flatter than usual.

"We're so very, very close," Romney said near the end. But unlike in Cleveland, which had been indoors, the dropping temperatures and the late hour seemed to claw the energy out of Romney. He struggled to deliver the line with gusto, and the crowd was silent.

Machine Versus Man

At the end of a campaign, everyone is tired and sometimes cranky. But there was far more of that sentiment among the Romney campaign than there was in the Obama campaign. The mood inside the Obama bubble was relatively calm and confident, compared to a worn-out feeling within the Romney campaign. The biggest reason for this was simple: the Republican's operation has been on the road nearly nonstop for months upon months. They have spent night after night in one hotel after the other. And for many of the mid-level staff, it's their first presidential campaign.

Obama, on the other hand, has headed home at the end of most campaign days, sleeping in his own bed at the White House. More frequently in the last days, the press corps stayed on the road overnight while the president headed home and then flew back out in the morning. But even for the staff and reporters on the road with the president, the trips have had limited duration, while for those staff and reporters out every day with Romney, it has been a brutal road show day after day.

It's the blessing of incumbency. The sitting president has far more resources at his disposal, affecting deployment of personnel, planning, logistics, and everything else that helps things run smoothly and effectively at the end of a campaign, when mapping out where to go and when becomes an extraordinarily complex task.

Those who have followed the Romney campaign since its inception know what an inflated behemoth it has become since then, at least compared to the nimble operation it was in the beginning. But it is still a small-size sedan compared to the Obama Hummer.

That's why Obama described himself as nothing more than "a prop" on Saturday night in Bristow, Va. The many moving parts -– most of them focused on getting voters out to the polls, knocking on doors, making phone calls -– were the real show by that point.

It's Not The Size of The Crowd, It's How You Use It

Between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended each of Obama's Friday rallies. At the second event, in Springfield, when people in the high school gym bleachers began to sit down, young campaign aides ran along the front row motioning with their arms vigorously, telling them to stand back up. The next morning, The New York Times front page carried an essay by photographer Damon Winter about how the crowds at the president's rallies have been "smaller and less diverse" than they were in 2008, and that they had a "uniform, prepackaged gloss."

Conversely, on Friday night Romney held a rally outside Cincinnati that his campaign said pulled in 30,000 supporters, though there was some dispute about that number. Local police told some reporters the crowd was at 18,000, but the Romney campaign said that didn't count people who were in the overflow area.

Crowd size is one indicator of who has momentum in a presidential race, but it's not one of the better data points, unless there is a clear disparity between the two sides. But on the heels of Romney's Oct. 23 rally with 10,000 supporters at Red Rocks Pavilion in Colorado, the Republican campaign began using their events to argue they had the upper hand.

"Our campaign has gathered the strength of a movement," Romney said on Sunday night. "It's not just the size of the crowds, it's the depth of our shared conviction."

On Saturday night, Romney followed his big Cincinnati event by drawing another huge crowd: 18,000 in Englewood, Co. The difference between Obama's events on Friday and Romney's that night was, some said, evidence of an enthusiasm gap.

But the idea that Romney had momentum this past week ran counter to what most polls were showing. The Republican's lead in national polls had been shrinking before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, and continued to do so during and after. And in key swing states like Ohio, Obama did not just continue to hold on to a lead -- his advantage was, ever so slightly, expanding.

This statistical evidence of Obama's momentum made it even more crucial for Romney and the Republicans to believe that their big crowds were tangible evidence that conservatives are more excited and motivated than Democrats.

But by Sunday, Obama's events started to outpace Romney's. Obama drew 24,000 people to see him in Northern Virginia on Saturday night, then followed that up with what news reports said was the largest rally in New Hampshire political history: 14,000 in Concord. The president then got crowds of 23,000 in Hollywood, Fla., 15,500 in Cincinatti, and 20,000 in Aurora, Co.

The Obama campaign called on their celebrity support in the final two days. Latino rapper Pitbull appeared with Obama in Florida. The president then held some of the biggest events of his campaign on Monday, when he appeared with rock legend Bruce Springsteen in Madison, Wisc., on Monday morning in front of 18,000 people, and then headed with him to Columbus, Ohio and Des Moines, Iowa. The Columbus rally had the added celebrity juice of rapper Jay-Z.

The Madison crowd of 18,000 with Springsteen was far below, however, what Sen. John Kerry (R-Mass.) got in 2004, when 80,000 people showed up for a rally in Madison that also included Springsteen a few days before the election.

Nevertheless, the Obama campaign saved its stretch of big rallies for the very end of the campaign, and used the president's appearances leading up to that to target key parts of battleground states. On Friday, Obama's three smaller rallies were in parts of the state where support for the president is not a given: a Cleveland suburb that he won in 2008 but which went for George W. Bush twice, a part of the Columbus suburbs where an organizer told the crowd that sometimes it felt like being an outsider to be a Democrat, and in Lima, a mid-size city in the crucial northwest.

It was an echo of what Republicans in Iowa told HuffPost back in September, when they pointed out that the president's trips to their state had been more creatively targeted to hit smaller parts of the state rather than just visiting Des Moines repeatedly.

"Our focus every single day is reaching 270 electoral votes, and that means hitting every nook and cranny in states like Ohio, Iowa, Florida and all of the key swing states to make sure we turn out every single voter," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "Every event, every phone call, every radio ad is targeted toward making sure people turn out to the polls."



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