The Facebook page for Jon Stewart's Oct. 30 Rally to Restore Sanity was on its way to 100,000 attendees when liberals rediscovered that most familiar of emotions: panic.
Why would there be panic about the first fun or galvanizing event that Barack Obama's liberal base had to look forward to since their limited edition Shepard Fairey prints came in the mail? It's simple. Democrats look at the electoral map and see that they're doomed. Their hope rests on the resilience of liberal activists and union members, who will be spending the final 72 hours of the campaign pulling voters to the polls. And all of a sudden here come Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, turning a joke into a mega-rally and plucking liberals right out of their get-out-the-vote operations during their most crucial weekend.
"A lot of people on campus are going," says William Vogt, a Georgetown University junior and spokesman for the campus's College Democrats. "I'm planning to attend it, too. Right now I don't think we're worried about an effect on GOTV. The rally is Saturday; Halloween is Sunday. We're still going to vote on Tuesday."
This is high-grade Democratic nightmare fuel. In 2008, college kids from Washington, D.C., campuses regularly boarded buses to campaign for Obama-Biden in Virginia. In Iowa, twentysomething Obama volunteers erased bad memories of Howard Dean's messy campaign by getting to know locals and mastering caucus politics. Both of these activities seemed more useful than an attention-getting rally that, like so many rallies, will just reinforce what the activists think. And what they think when they watch Stewart and Colbert is: "Aren't these right-wingers a bunch of rubes?"
Democrats don't think this is helpful, and a few of them poured their hearts out to Politico's Ben Smith. "To the extent that some people who will attend his rally would otherwise be involved in GOTV efforts," wrote party strategist Steve Rosenthal, "this is not helpful."
Tea Partiers are on the same page. They appreciate the distraction from the labor movement's One Nation rally on Oct. 2, which has only started to get attention since … well, since it started being analyzed as a victim of Restoring Sanity. They also appreciate liberal activists taking themselves out of the GOTV game for a day.
"I'd much rather see liberals coming to D.C. that weekend than staying in their districts and GOTV-ing," says Brendan Steinhauser, director of state campaigns for FreedomWorks and a key organizer of the group's two 9/12 rallies. "Our guys are going to be in Ohio and Pennsylvania knocking on doors."
There's no blaming Jon Stewart here. The Tea Partiers went through their own period of reflection about the wisdom of rallies. It was in March 2009; the conclusion was that the rallies were wise. They discovered their natural allies and brainstormed new organizations, and by summer 2010, they were deep into horse-race politics, candidate endorsements, and the humiliation of moderate Republicans in party primaries.