Crowd size is overrated … trust me

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is blown away by the size of the crowds greeting Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Here’s what Reich posted on Facebook: “What amazes me, frankly, are the crowds. Not since Robert F. Kennedy sought the Democratic nomination in 1968 has a candidate for the nomination of either party generated such large numbers of people eager to see and listen to him. None in living memory has summoned such crowds this early, before the nominating season even begins. Even Sanders’ advisers are amazed (I spoke with one this morning who said they never expected this kind of response).

“What’s the explanation? It’s not his sense of humor. It’s not his youth. He isn’t a demagogue, bashing immigrants or pandering to hatred and bigotry. It’s that he’s telling Americans the unvarnished truth about what has happened to our economy and our democracy, and he is posing real solutions. And it seems that America is ready to listen.”

I guess I need to remind Reich — who I’m sure is aware of a lot more than I am — about a reality.

It is that big crowds don’t translate necessarily into votes.

The late U.S. Sen. George McGovern drew big crowds as well when he ran for president in 1972. I stood among a throng of thousands of people in a plaza in downtown Portland, Ore., as McGovern fired up the masses. That crowd was big, boisterous, enthusiastic — and it mirrored many of the political rally crowds McGovern was drawing all across the nation.

Sen. McGovern lost the election that year by 23 percentage points, as President Nixon rang up a 49-state landslide victory.

Yes, Sanders is telling voters his version of the “unvarnished truth.” Indeed, RFK did much the same thing in 1968 as he sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy’s message was different; it dealt more with issues of the heart, such as peace abroad and justice at home for all Americans.

Sanders’s crowds are impressive. Let’s remember, though, that he remains a still-distant second to the Democrats’ frontrunner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’s got another all-important edge over the rest of her party’s primary field: money.

We now live in an era where money matters far more than massive crowds.