September 14th, 2007

Club Obama Event Bears Out Obama Rule: Attendance = Expectations x 2 ++

by Philip Baruth

Without getting into specifics, it’s fair to say that VDB has participated in some bush-league events over the years. Many events, in fact, which tried desperately but ultimately failed even to rise to the bush-league.

the metronome

Events where you whisper only two prayers: that someone will kill you, and that no one will resuscitate.

Like reading for 40 minutes to one lone gentleman in South Bend, Indiana — a retired, slightly deaf UPS driver who got more than a little testy when he heard the store was thinking of cancelling the show.

And of course other events that make even the ill-fated South Bend reading-of-one seem festive and productive by comparison.

But the Obama campaign has changed all that.

We’ve written about the Obama Rule before, the loaves-and-fishes quality of any audience queuing up for any Obama event. People come streaming steadily out of the woodwork, multiply before your eyes.

If you bring a dozen donuts, turns out you need 35. If you expect 20, you’ll get 58.

the crowd

And so on, and so on. Not entirely certain if there’s any upper mathematical limit to this rule, but if there is, VDB has yet to chart it.

Our best guess for last night’s Club Obama event was a crowd somewhere just south of 50, which would have been just fine for a Wednesday night 4 months before New Hampshire, and 7 months before Vermont’s own primary.


Neil Jensen, who had advanced the event down to the last minute detail, had conservatively lined up about 40 chairs — always good to undershoot rather than overshoot when it comes to chairs, as Sam Brownback can tell you.


But by the time the main event got underway at 7:00, attendance was hovering at around 110 or so, we had a satellite truck giving hourly updates, and getting a beer at the bar was suddenly a very dicey affair. We had print journalists and political bloggers, and in Seven Days’ Peter Freyne we managed to have both simultaneously.

Peter Freyne

We had one of the best amateur photographers I’ve ever seen in ex-Dean staffer Jim Brayton.

All of which made a certain logical sense: we had three very influential Vermont politicians publicly endorsing Obama on the same stage, on the same night.

Former Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle, State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding, and Attorney General Bill Sorrell all came with the same message for the crowd: they support this movement candidacy not because of what’s wrong with Hillary or Edwards, but because of what’s unambiguously right with Barack Obama.

jeb spaulding

It was an almost audible cracking of the ice that has kept the Left frozen in place for the bulk of this primary season.

Because of the quality and the strength of the Democratic top-tier, and because the frontloaded calendar has moved events along at such a murderous clip — and frankly because Hillary Clinton and her husband remain well-respected icons even for those inclined to support another candidate — high-profile politicians have been reluctant to endorse, not only here but nationwide.

more crowd

So last night’s three thumbs up made news, of the best sort.

And all of the invited guests — Clavelle, Spaulding, and Sorrell — gave their endorsements with authentic excitement, real passion. Jeb Spaulding talked about the varied texture of Obama’s background, from Hawaii to Indonesia to Chicago to the Senate, and what that might mean for America’s standing in the world.

Out of office for the last sixteen months, Peter Clavelle was fresh from a bit of international travel himself, and he seemed really to relish having a hometown political crowd to whip up again.

Peter Clavelle

Sorrell, for his part, was walking on air: just hours before, Judge William K. Sessions III had upheld Vermont’s attempts to regulate greenhouse gasses emitted by cars and light trucks — rejecting each and every one of the auto industry’s myriad defenses.

Bill Sorrell

Sorrell wore his hair a little long, a blazer and a black t-shirt instead of a tie, and seemed generally to be living large and loving life. His Top Ten Reasons to Support Obama veered from the comic to the deadly serious, and back again.

The crowd, for its part, was made up of the sort of people who always seem to show up at Obama gatherings: people who want not only to get out of Iraq but to go somewhere different and better once we do.

even more crowd

It was a very positive message, taken all together, marred by only one brutal partisan who told jokes at the expense of Karl Rove and Senator Larry Craig for a solid ten minutes.

Philip Baruth

It was the sort of event that money can’t buy. You can’t pay people to sweat the details the way Neil did in the weeks prior to last night. You can’t pay people to gently encourage public endorsements the way that Mary Sullivan — a quiet force of nature in her own right — has for the last six months.

Okay, you can pay them. But what they produce will be workmanlike, not inspired, and not inspiring.

VDB once wrote a novel about Burlington, a novel told in stories, and the original idea was to have every one of the pieces in the book set in the Metronome. It seemed, in the mid-90’s, like the center of the universe.

Eventually the book went in other directions, but there’s always this distinct sense of deep familiarity and false deja vu passing the joint on the street.

And somehow that made it even nicer last night, to walk up the dark staircase out of Nectar’s and into an event that we never could have imagined alone.

[Many thanks to Jim Brayton, for the first-rate photos accompanying this post. And the WCAX footage and story — featuring a break-out performance by Rip and Read’s Alex Ball — can be found here.]