vision 2020

Are Trump’s Rallies Mostly for an Audience of One?

Trump rallies his base in Louisiana in 2016. Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP/Shutterstock

After last weekend’s fiasco in Tulsa and a dangerous packed-house event in Arizona this week, it’s obvious that Donald Trump’s campaign is willing to take a lot of risks to resume the rallies that were suspended in March when the coronavirus pandemic became impossible to ignore or minimize. His staff is reportedly trying to come up with a new formula for live presidential campaign events that is both safer for participants and less vulnerable to missed expectations. But no one seems to be questioning the underlying assumption: that these rallies are hugely important to Trump’s reelection campaign. In part that’s because they were such a big part of the mythology of Trump’s upset win last time around.

You know the narrative: Hillary Clinton’s massively financed and smug campaign spent heavily on ads in states she wasn’t going to carry even as Trump smartly mobilized white working-class voters in Rust Belt states generally thought to be in the bag for the Democrat. Once elected, a president relentlessly focused on keeping his MAGA base energized was ever-ready to deploy himself to trouble spots on the map, or sometimes just to deep red states where the folks loved to see him.

Curious about the actual utility of these events, political scientist Alan Abramowitz took a close look those 2016 Trump rallies at Sabato’s Crystal Ball and reached a surprising conclusion:

In order to estimate the impact that campaign visits had on the election results, I conducted a regression analysis of the results in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. I used the Democratic vote margin as the dependent variable and the relative number of campaign visits to each state along with the Democratic vote margin in the 2012 presidential election as independent variables …

[T]he relative number of campaign trips to a state by Trump and Clinton had no effect on the results. In contrast, the 2012 results strongly predicted the 2016 results. These findings indicate that despite the divergent outcomes of the two elections, there was a high degree of consistency in the results across the states. Clinton did best in states that strongly supported Barack Obama in 2012, and Trump did best in states that strongly supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Of course, Trump outperformed Romney in a number of swing states, which is what allowed him to win the electoral vote. However, his performance relative to Romney was not affected by the number of events that he held in a state compared with Clinton.

If Abramowitz is right, or even half-right, you have to wonder why Trump’s reelection campaign really needs these perilous rallies, given all their other resources, and the president’s ability to command national attention instantly with the flick of a tweet.

Perhaps the answer can be informed by a recent incident offering a deep look into the presidential psyche, as reported by the Daily Beast:

Over the past month, the Trump campaign has spent slightly more than $400,000 on cable news ads in the Washington, D.C., area, buying time largely on Fox News but with some smaller buys on CNN and MSNBC as well, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission. The ads began running in late May and are scheduled throrsugh June 23. It is, on a purely electoral level, a remarkably quixotic use of campaign cash. The purchases have no real shot of moving D.C., Maryland, or Virginia into the Trump column.

That wasn’t the point, though. The ads were designed not for swing voters but for one particular Trump base voter addicted to cable TV:

In recent weeks, Trump has grown visibly distraught at his prospects for re-election, with recent polling showing his standing in the race declining dramatically in the wake of a sustained coronavirus outbreak and resulting recession, and as demonstrators flood major cities to protest the police killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis last month …

With Trump stuck in that milieu of anxiety, his re-election team is hoping that the ads may put him at ease that his formidable political machine is hard at work defending him and attacking his enemies. Trump is a voracious consumer of cable news, and — the thinking goes — is likely to see the spots pop up between segments of his favorite shows.

Quite possibly the president’s manifest love for holding rallies is placing a firm thumb on the scales in favor of their continuation, whether or not they are doing his reelection campaign much good.

In normal conditions you might be able to shrug and say these rallies do no harm, provide nice visuals for the evening news, and keep the president’s spirits up. But given the persistence of the pandemic, you have to ask what sort of narcissist exposes his most fervent supporters to illness and death because he enjoys the adulation of crowds?

The answer is a narcissist like Donald Trump. When you look at his passion for rallies, it’s no wonder the president moved his party’s national convention from its planned site because he could not tolerate the idea of making his acceptance speech without a packed hall of screaming supporters. Even if there’s no evidence it will matter, and regardless of the political, health, and safety risks, the man is an energy vampire who needs to feast on cheers.

Are Trump’s Rallies for an Audience of One?