Similar “crowds for hire” companies have also sprung up internationally to create fake support for politicians, including a British company named Envisage Promotions and a Ukranian outfit named Easy Work, which paid student protestors $4 an hour to support (and oppose) various politicians. To political experts, these developments are another symptom of a decades-long trend of political professionalization, with campaigns farming out work formerly done by volunteers to a class of paid consultants and specialists. In the case of crowd hiring, it’s actors.
Costas Panagopoulos, the director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham University, said that he first heard rumblings of the crowds-for-hire idea around the 2010 midterm elections, and is unsurprised that businesses like Swart’s have come to exist. Campaigns already pay for signature gatherers, canvassers, pollsters, direct-mailing services, and extras in feel-good political ads—why wouldn’t they pay to fill a hotel ballroom?
“It’s really another example of just how orchestrated political campaigns are these days, and the degree of attention that’s paid to every dimension. Especially visual elements, like crowd size,” Panagopoulos said.
Though highly organized and paid-for synthetic support for a candidate may be a fairly new development in American politics, offering a little quid pro quo to boost turnout at a political rally is really far from new. “In the 19th century, campaigns did all kinds of things to get people to show up,” Joe Cummins, the author of Anything for a Vote, which documents seedy campaign tactics used by U.S. presidential candidates throughout history, says. “If you were an immigrant in those days, the only social safety net was the local precinct of a political organization. Showing up to a rally might mean getting a job, or a meal, or even some money.”
Offering to feed campaign volunteers is generally accepted in American politics; paying them to show up and cheer is up for debate. There might be some gray area between offering a small token of appreciation to otherwise voluntary supporters and full-blown astroturfing, but spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars to prop up a struggling cause seems to fit more squarely in the latter category.
For his part, Mr. Swart is adamant that what Crowds on Demand and companies like it do is ethical—and says it’s more ethical than many other modern campaign tactics. “I say it’s far less misleading than negative TV ads that are often proven to be half-truths or complete fabrications,” Swart says. “I’m engaging with the political process and making people think.”
Still, even Swart admits that a revelation that a campaign is paying for supporters is deeply embarrassing, and he takes great pains to keep his clients’ identities a secret. And for his purposes, probably rightly so. The Trump episode illustrates that the public—and certainly the media—still prefers that crowds be assembled the old-fashioned way: flyers, emails, Facebook invitations, and perhaps a harmless slice of campaign-expensed pizza after the party.