Dar es Salaam — The CCM rally at Tanganyika Packers grounds in Dar es Salaam on Wednesday, October 14, attracted a huge crowd. Thousands of CCM members, sup-porters and Kawe residents thronged the grounds despite the threat of rains given a dark cloud that hang over the city.
It was not the first time that rallies held by CCM presidential candidate John Magufuli attracted such a large turnout of people. The first Dar es Salaam rally held at the Benjamin Mkapa stadium on October 9 also attracted a huge crowd. So were rallies held in other parts of the country such as Dodoma, Mwanza, Geita, Kigoma, Zanzibar, and Tabora. Chadema presidential candidate Tundu Lissu has also been attracting huge crowds across the country?. In campaign stops in Mbeya and Songwe regions in September, for example, he attracted such huge crowds that he became visibly emotional. He warned authorities against "tampering with the election results." "Anybody who would tamper with this election will go to answer before The Hague [International Criminal Court based in The Netherlands]," Lissu said while addressing a mammoth campaign rally in Tunduma.
The issue of the size of crowds in campaign rallies has dominated the discourse in this General Election as it did in the previous ones. But this year candidates, campaign surrogates, party die-hard members, and publicists and their supporters have put much more importance on the huge crowds. Opposition politicians say the ruling party has been attracting huge crowds because of performances by famous musicians it has taken under its wings during rallies.
It is difficult to determine, they argue, how many people attending the rallies go solely to watch musicians' performances and how many are attracted by candidates' appeal and their messages.
But addressing the Kawe rally on October 14, the CCM presidential candidate said the huge rallies meant that CCM was going to win the elections: "The opposition knows that they are going to lose. Look at this crowd! Can you compare it with their small rallies? They say it is because of the artistes' performances. But has Mwamposa [Tanganyika-based evangelist Boniface] or other clerics come to this rally because of musicians?" He added that the artistes go to the rallies mainly because they are members of CCM.
The issue of the size of campaign rallies has also dominated the US election and is receiving significant airtime in the American media. Again, like Tanzania, it is not the first time that American presidential campaigns have been obsessed with crowd size in their rallies.
This year expectations were that restriction on gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic would have put to rest, or at least, changed the narrative on the importance of crowd size during campaigns. Alas! President Donald Trump's campaign has not only been organizing huge rallies (although some flopped) but has also been touting the crowds as a sign of both his electability and the enthusiasm of his base (voters). The huge rallies have been held, most often, in contravention of health guidelines, despite the US being one of the worst-hit countries by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to US media reports.
Trump's rival, Joe Biden, has so far resisted the temptation to go for big rallies. He has adhered to health guide-lines against larger gatherings, some-times holding campaign events of up to 15 people, according to US media reports. Smaller events are more suitable for him, US political observers say because Biden has never been a man for bigger crowds. He is prone to gaffes, they claim. During the primaries, well before the coronavirus pandemic, he attracted smaller crowds than some of his rivals in the Democratic Party. But he continued to lead in polls and was raising more money. He ended up clinching the Democratic presidential nomination. And currently, despite going for bigger rallies, Trump is still trailing Biden in most opinion polls.
It is difficult to use the size of crowds of Trump and Biden to gauge the enthusiasm of their bases or electability because the Democratic presidential candidate's smaller rallies are by choice not design.
Furthermore, in the US, unlike in Tanzania, there are independent pollsters with years of experience and who use scientific methodologies for their surveys. The polls are much more dependable in gauging voters' choice on Election Day. But still, these factors have not made the debate on the size of campaign rallies go away. This could be partly because there have been instances when the polls 'lied.' Like in 2016 when most polls predicted that the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would win the White House. She didn't. Trump, whose crowd sizes rivalled those of Clinton, won.
Advantages of big rallies
"Once widely regarded as an interesting but ultimately inconsequential novelty of political campaigns, crowd size is now a potentially meaningful metric of electability; one that can translate into volunteers, donors and actual momentum," American journalists Ashley Parker and Annie Linskey write in The Washington Post.
"For a lot of people, part of electability is seeing that a candidate can generate excitement and draw big crowds," says Zach Simonson, an American Democrat activist. Charlie Gerow an American Republican strategist says huge rallies are important because they energize voters and allow people to get a better sense of the candidates and their campaigns.
"Rallies aren't the well varnished, carefully scripted performances of 30-second television ads or media avail-abilities; they're much more authentic looks at the candidates," Gerow says in defense of Trump's rallies. But do large crowds correlate to winning? Should a candidate worry about the absence of large crowds? If merely drawing a crowd is not sufficient to win, is it a vital ingredient? According to Matt Lewis, an American newspaper columnist, crowds are great, in as much as they suggest excited supporters who will ultimately vote. But they should be seen as a means to an end--not the end, he writes.
"To some extent, large crowds are really about optics. They mostly matter because we think they matter. Unlike more ephemeral types of voter contact (which can fly under the radar) or ways to gauge a campaign's progress (like polling), rallies are tactile and tangible. You can see them, touch them, photograph them... experience them. And this leads to a lot of anecdotal analysis," he writes.
What really matters, he adds, is voter turnout. If a voter shows up on Election Day, it doesn't matter how excited he/she was about her candidate; nor does it matter if she attended a rally. An American elections analyst, Nathaniel Rakich, says the ability to generate big crowds may signal enthusiasm among highly engaged voters or produce favorable media coverage.
Like Google search data, crowd sizes may also be more of a measure of curiosity about a candidate than actual sup-port, Rakich adds. "Voters don't just go to rallies to cheer on their candidate; they also go to learn more and maybe allow themselves to be persuaded," he notes.
However, he cautions that in the US, specifically, opinion polls are much more accurate at forecasting elections than crowd-size. He says that since crowds at political events are self-selected a rally can-not, therefore, serve as a good scientific sample to measure a candidate's elect-ability. "By contrast, polls are scientific instruments that use proven sampling techniques and statistical weighting to ensure that they are reflecting a representative population," he says.
Rakich further says that one of the many problems with crowd-size estimates is that they can be extremely rough, and they're subject to reporting bias. Some campaigns tend to exaggerate estimates of the number of people attending the rallies. There are also a tone of factors other than enthusi-asm for the candidate that can affect crowd sizes Rakich writes; "Where is the event being held? Are there other draws besides the candidate [such as performance by famous musicians]?"
In elections campaigns in Tanzania this year the decision by the ruling par-ty to make unabashed use of famous artistes in its rallies seems, from a distance, as a desperate measure. And, obviously, it has received its fair share of ridicule from the opposition and other stakeholders. Now, while it is true that a good number of people go to the rallies to enjoy the performances, it also remains true that some of the people who go to rallies solely for the performances' sake could actually pay attention and hear the message. This could influence their choices and the way they vote on Election Day.
For a country like Tanzania where presidential mid-term elections are abnormally apathetic as past experiences show, using any method to draw out crowds to rallies could make a difference. It should be accompanied, however, by a strategy to get them to vote on Election Day.
Furthermore, the absence of independent, credible pollsters in Tanzania makes it difficult to understand voters' choices and preferences as regards to candidates in this election. The size of rallies, the ensuing spins, and campaigns' own polls remain the only tools to help us gauge candidates' electability. The only downside is that large crowds and the absence of independent polling could give the wrong impression that the election was 'too close to call' (as American political pundits normally say) or could render some sort of credibility to accusations of a stolen election.