How many saw Obama in Rochester?

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I was going to write a straight news story about Barak Obama’s visit to Rochester in support of Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar and Minnesota District 1 congressional candidate Tim Walz, an event that I attended. But it has been amply covered by the Associated Press here and by Matt Stolle of the Rochester Post-Bulletin here (and on Bluestem Prairie here, if the Post-Bulletin story disappears). So why duplicate? No reason to, except that…

A critical fact was vastly different in the two reports. The AP article claimed there were “more than 1,000” in attendance as did the Minneapolis Star Tribune; the Post-Bulletin estimated 3,000. That’s a big discrepancy.

I admit I’m terrible at estimating crowd size, so I tried to get several opinions. The first person I checked with was a Mayo Civic Center employee, who said that the arena where the event took place would seat about 2,200 to 2,300. The key word here is “seat”, for the only permanent seats in the room were in the balcony surrounding it on three sides. His numbers included seating on the main floor. But for this event only about 100 seats were set up on the floor, primarily for those who wouldn’t be able to stand the entire 90-minute duration of the event. The vast majority of the crowd was standing, and they filled about two-thirds of the floor space.

I also checked with Walz campaign staffer Chris Schmitter, who had booked the room. He said that he chose it because it had a capacity of 3,400.

So who was correct?

Just before the event started I asked the Civic Center employee to estimate the crowd size for me. He said at least 2,000. But really it was hard to tell. Plus there were people still coming in.

I wrote earlier about a similar discrepancy of crowd estimates for the Laura Bush visit to the same facility, albeit in a different room. The Albert Lea Tribune reported 700, while a Fox News reporter on the scene said 250.

It says something about the accuracy of the news when the AP article, whose estimate was off by a half or more, is the one carried around the country.

While an election will not hinge on misestimating a crowd size, in a contest that is very close, as many elections this year will be — including the Minnesota 1st Congressional District race — even the smallest detail, if presented incorrectly, might change the outcome.

Let’s hope this doesn’t happen.

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