DEFIANCE, Ohio—There’s a moment that arrives now and again in presidential campaign speeches when the candidate says, “If I’m president,” and then corrects himself: “when I’m president.” This is a crowd favorite and usually gets a healthy round of cheers. Then the candidate moves on. When Mitt Romney said this on Thursday morning in Cincinnati, the crowd reacted as if it was election night and he’d just been declared president—and they’d been given a new car. For 30 seconds, they screamed and cheered.
As we enter the final sprint, campaigns and their supporters will sustain themselves on sweeping crowd shots of supporters cheering on their man. At the Romney rally on a football field in Defiance, Ohio, the campaign had a camera hooked to a drone to get sweeping crowd shots. So far this campaign we’ve had fights over facts, and then it was a fight over the polls. Now we’re having a fight over momentum. Who has the larger crowd? Who has more enthusiasm?
Trying to read a crowd is mostly a mug’s game. I remember attending a John McCain event in Appleton, Wis., in 2008 that made the ground shake in the gymnasium. McCain lost Wisconsin by 14 points. Still, for Mitt Romney, who was once considered merely a tepid vessel of anti-Obama feeling and who had trouble in the primaries stirring the party faithful, he’s peaking at the right time. The lines snake through neighborhoods and people leave hoarse and buoyant. It used to be that his crowds were most excited when he said mean things about Barack Obama. Now that’s not what is getting most of the cheers. They cheer for Romney, the guy up there on stage.
What makes crowd size and enthusiasm so alluring is that everyone is flying blind about Ohio, looking for a sign somewhere that the state is going their way. Both campaigns believe the polls are essentially tied. Recently the debate in Ohio has focused on which party is doing better in early voting. Democrats say they are exceeding their 2008 levels. Republicans say Democrats are just capturing the voters that were already going to vote for Obama and not using the early voting period to win over low propensity voters. (I wrote about this Thursday.) Campaign aides say they are “exceeding their metrics,” which means they’ve knocked on more doors, put up more signs, or made more phone calls than they expected to make. But you can exceed your metrics and lose because the other guy is exceeding his metrics, too.
Romney is using Obama’s 2008 campaign against him. He’s trying to steal the change mantle from the president. The word change cropped up a dozen times in two speeches, and Romney regularly shakes his head at how low the author of Hope and Change has fallen. “His campaign gets smaller and smaller,” he says, “Our campaign is about big things. We happen to believe that America faces big challenges … Americans want to see big changes and that’s what I’m going to bring.”
The day ended for Romney on that football field at Defiance High School. The scoreboard read 4th down, 12 to go, referring to the number of days left in the campaign. After the national anthem was sung, fireworks launched behind the end zone. And then Meatloaf took the stage. “Never before have I endorsed a single candidate until now,” said the 65-year-old singer of “Bat Out of Hell” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” who said that after the last debate he couldn’t stay on the sidelines given the “storm clouds rising over the world.” Before he left the stage, he said he had called three Democrats and convinced two of them to vote for Romney. “So two out of three ain’t bad,” he said.