Democrats hoped Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” Saturday would provide the kick in the pants needed to fire up unenthusiastic young voters just three days before the midterms.
The event, with the Capitol as the backdrop, was a comedic success. A gargantuan crowd loved the live music and lapped up the satirical repartee between Stewart and sidekick Stephen Colbert.
But Stewart’s decision to avoid explicit partisan politicking denied the left a kind of galvanizing moment that might have driven to the polls his Democratic fans who weren’t already planning to vote or motivated previously apathetic liberals to grassroots activities.
“I’m really happy you guys are here, even if none of us are really quite sure why,” Stewart said. “Some of you may have seen today as a clarion call for action … Clearly some of you who just wanted to see the Air and Space Museum got royally screwed. And I’m sure a lot of you were just here to have a nice time, and I hope you did.”
When Stewart finally got serious after two-and-a-half hours of warm-ups and skits, he didn’t go after Republicans. He lampooned extreme conservatives and extreme liberals who thrive in the 24-7 cable news freak show.
In previews, some commentators speculated that the rally could become this generation’s Woodstock. Maybe it was, but only in the sense that it was largely apolitical while playing out in the most political of contexts.
The majority of more than 50 people interviewed in a crowd organizers estimated at around 250,000 said the rally will have a negligible impact on the impending elections, even as they hoped otherwise.
“Most politicians probably view this as a joke. They’re pretty much right, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Jonathan Byrd, 22, a liberal grocery store stocker from Hagerstown, Md. “I don’t think this rally is going to change anyone’s mind.”
Stewart himself, in his closing remarks, spoke of the three-hour extravaganza as both a “show” and performance. The event was a meta-spoof on Fox News host Glenn Beck’s August 28 “Restoring Honor” rally, held on the other side of the National Mall. But Stewart also played edited video clips meant to make MSNBC hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews look as over-the-top and sensational as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Beck, like Stewart, said in advance of his event that he wouldn’t be political. He surprised observers by not mentioning President Barack Obama by name, but he featured Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a prominent speaker. And to clear up any confusion about his conservative agenda, Beck unleashed on what he called Obama’s “liberation theology” during a subsequent “Fox News Sunday” interview.
Reflecting how safe Stewart played it Saturday, he dodged a question at a later news conference about whether he thinks those who came to his rally should show up at the polls this week. "People should do what moves them,” he said. “That's not for me to decide.”
Underneath the nonpartisan message, Stewart is obviously not fully at ease with the administration. His own clearing-of-the-air interview with the president Wednesday reflected the left’s disappointments and frustrations that the president hasn’t been bolder. His serious questions prompted the president to vigorously defend his record.
One of the most political moments on stage Saturday came when Stewart awarded a “Medal of Reasonableness” to Velma Hart, an Obama supporter who challenged the president during a CNBC town hall meeting last month.
“While they may not have agreed at the end of their exchange, they could at least walk away feeling like they understood one another a little bit better,” Stewart told the crowd, as a clip from the exchange played.
Hart defended Obama when she came on stage. “I appreciated his answer, and I appreciated the answers he’s given us every day since,” she said, to cheers.
That he gave the award to Hart demonstrated admiration for those who reject reflexive partisanship.
The Democratic Party and its outside allies, meanwhile, tried to piggyback as much as possible on the rally.
Organizing for America, the Obama campaign apparatus, set up outside Union Station in the morning. Staff and volunteers welcomed buses coming in from out of state. Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for the group, said they signed people up for get-out-the-vote activities. But she didn’t say how many.
At Democratic National Committee headquarters, the OFA held a “Phone Bank to Restore Sanity” after the rally. About 100 volunteers made phone calls into states with close races like Ohio and Colorado.
While some of the volunteers had come to Washington to attend the rally, many were locals who have already been helping the DNC with calls for several weeks.
Scott Challeen, an 18-year-old George Washington University student, said there’s “no question” fellow Democrats are struggling to get excited about the election.
“There’s a definite enthusiasm gap,” Challeen said, in between calls to Indiana on behalf of vulnerable Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.). “Obama’s not on the ballot. It’s an off-year election. If you’re out of power you have that much more incentive to get into power. That’s why the Republicans are really energized. They’re amped up.”
Only 52 percent of all 18-29 year olds, who lean heavily Democrat, said they’re extremely likely to vote in a POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground poll released Monday.
The crowd itself was overwhelmingly Democrat, although there were smatterings of Republicans who came because they love Stewart and Colbert’s shows. According to a straw poll conducted via opt-in text messaging for a liberal group called USAction by Celinda Lake and Revolution Messaging, 56 percent of people at the rally strongly approve of Obama’s performance and 34 percent only somewhat approve.
Groups such as Amnesty International, Public Citizen and the Feminist Majority Foundation camped outside the Navy-Archives Memorial Metro station handing out buttons, signs and fliers.
The League of Young Voters PAC handed out 50,000 stickers that said “Vote Sanity.”
“It was a huge success in terms of visibility,” said Sam Patton, the progressive group’s associate director. “If we had one regret, it’s that we didn’t print 200,000 stickers.”
MediaMatters, the progressive media watchdog group, collected about 15,000 signatures for its Fox advertiser boycott.
“My sense was that there was enormous appetite for the message that the way to restore sanity was to fight Fox News,” said David Brock, the group’s president.
He said Stewart has touched a nerve by “tapping into the sense that people really want a way to discern the truth and cut through spin on both sides.”
Most of the people who came to the rally, though, were more focused on their Halloween costumes than get-out-the-vote efforts, stickers or a Fox boycott.
“I’d love to say every person here is going to vote on Tuesday, but I can’t,” said Matthew Penfield, a 37-year-old paralegal who came dressed in a full-body Grizzly Bear suit.
Some interpreted the day as a call to relax more about politics than to get hyped up about it.
“The problem is that things have gotten too crazy. This is a reaction against that,” said Alanna Smith, 20, a college student from upstate New York. “Even if the youth were calming down after the election, everybody else wasn’t. This is mellowing.”
A surprising number of Democrats at the rally seemed at peace with Democrats losing the House.
“There’s nothing wrong with half and half,” said Katie Shanahan, a 24-year-old D.C. voter. “I mean, it’ll suck. But that’s the way we wanted it when Bush was president.”
She recalls the huge lines at American University to watch Ted Kennedy endorse Obama in 2008. She hasn’t seen that energy this year. “People won’t care until after the election,” she said.
The straw poll of Saturday’s crowd found 39 percent admit to being less enthusiastic now than they were in 2008. Only one in four claim they’re more enthusiastic.
While Stewart may not have changed many minds, he also did nothing that might create a backlash to his brand as an entertainer or blow up on Democrats.
Some Democrats feared that people who went to the rally would have been home canvassing for struggling Democratic candidates instead.
Asked about this, many committed Democrats said they thought they could have a bigger impact at the rally than back home.
“I think this will remind people to vote,” said Melissa Farrar, 25 of Seattle. “It’s easy to forget because the presidential campaign goes on and on forever. These are easier to overlook.”
Lynn Siemon, a retired 68-year-old teacher who lives in the Charlottesville, Va., district represented by the deeply vulnerable Tom Perriello, said that she doesn’t think canvassing makes a big difference because so many people have “hardened” views.
“I hope this has a political effect,” she said, waving an Obama 2012 sign she made. “He says its comedy and satire, but you can’t tell me three days before the election that this isn’t political. You can’t tell me this is nothing.”
For others, it seemed improbable that they’d have helped campaigns if they stayed back home. Andrew Scorza, a 27-year-old substitute teacher who votes in Maryland, came to the rally wearing a business suit and gorilla mask.
“I’m an asshole who has strong opinions, but I wouldn’t call myself politically active beyond voting,” he said. “I’ve never been out organizing because it’s really hard to find a politician to completely throw myself behind.”