Earlier this month, 15,000 people packed into New York’s Washington Square Park to hear US Senator Bernie Sanders. It was the largest rally for any candidate in the New York presidential primary — until 28,000 people came to hear Sanders in Prospect Park in Brooklyn a few days later. That was the biggest rally of Sanders presidential campaign.
On Tuesday, Sanders lost the New York primary to Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points. Sanders not only lost Brooklyn, but he also lost the neighborhood where he grew up.
The Sanders campaign has frequently pointed to his massive crowds as a sign the campaign still has momentum, even as public polls and delegate counts show it’s very unlikely — some say impossible — for him to win the nomination. Especially after New York, it’s clear his big crowds have not led to electoral success, and experts point to a few dynamics that explain why.
First, Clinton had won the New York primary three times before — her two Senate races, plus her 2008 race against then-Senator Barack Obama. She had a built-in infrastructure that could make it difficult for anyone to defeat her.
Sanders also wasn’t helped by New York’s stringent primary rules, in which independent voters had to switch their registration to the Democratic Party in October in order to vote this week. Closed primaries have been a problem for Sanders, who has a lot of support among independent voters.
Some — if not many — New Yorkers at Sanders’ rallies might not have been able to vote for him.
“There was the phrase that Bernie supporters go to rallies and Clinton supporters just go vote,” said Rebecca Katz, a Brooklyn-based Democratic strategist and former adviser to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “While I believe that Bernie’s team was out there energizing people, Hillary’s campaign had surrogates meeting voters in nearly every corner of the state.”
In the past, rallies have served as a measure of a campaign’s organization and strength. But today there are more efficient ways for a campaign to organize and galvanize their supporters that aren’t as visible. Technology, especially data attached to social media, has allowed campaigns to reach voters one-on-one.
Instead of using rallies as a shock-and-awe display for the media, campaigns use the crowd as a way to find new volunteers and fund-raising sources. The Sanders campaign followed up with potential voters via text message if they shared their cellphone information at rallies.
But this is a large organizational challenge that must be executed precisely, and some operatives say it’s no match for an established get-out-the-vote organization in a state.
To be sure, Sanders has been able to use his huge crowds to his advantage. Early in the campaign, his large rallies showed he was a legitimate candidate against Clinton, who was long perceived as the most formidable nonincumbent presidential candidate in modern American history.
What's more, Sanders’ game plan is not new. In 2004 former Vermont governor Howard Dean held large-scale rallies in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and New York. In 2008 Barack Obama kicked off his campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire with massive crowds, eschewing the traditional, person-to-person politics model that had been a staple of campaigning in those states.
“Were the rallies smoke and mirrors? No. They were real rallies, with real people, and real enthusiasm,” said Syracuse University political science professor Grant Reeher. “But voter turnout, especially in New York State, draws on a different set of organizational strengths which a movement candidate is going to have trouble tapping into in the months before an election.”
On Tuesday, the primary heads to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island, where Sanders will continue his rally tour. Last week in Philadelphia, people waited in line for near four hours to hear him speak. Sanders officials are also looking into the possibility of holding a large-scale rally outdoors in New Haven ahead of the Connecticut primary.
But polls show Clinton leading in every one of those five states.