Analysis: Why Was Turnout So Underwhelming at Trump's Much-Anticipated 'Comeback' Rally?

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Posted: Jun 22, 2020 10:35 AM
Analysis: Why Was Turnout So Underwhelming at Trump's Much-Anticipated 'Comeback' Rally?

As the afternoon faded into early evening on Saturday, anti-Trump Twitter was abuzz. Turnout for the president's re-election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma was looking underwhelming, and his critics were having a field day.  Team Trump had been publicly boasting about receiving more than one million RSVP's for the event, causing them to set up a massive overflow area outside of the arena, where both the President and Vice President were scheduled to make appearances to address and energize the throngs who couldn't fit inside the 19,000 seat arena.  But as showtime approached, the 'overflow' crowd was so sparse that the outdoor portion of the program was hastily scrapped altogether, and the stage dismantled:


Inside, the crowd was large and fired up, but thousands of empty blue seats were visible throughout the BOK Center's upper deck, in addition to the conspicuously non-crowded arena floor.  For an average political rally, the turnout was strong.  But for a Trump rally, especially one that was hyped and debated for weeks, it was a flop.  And the president knows it:


How did this happen?  Four factors, as far as I can tell.  First, Coronavirus.  In spite of all the rhetoric, it's clear that a great many Americans -- including scores of Trump supporters who would have swarmed into Tulsa under different circumstances -- just didn't want to roll the dice by attending a large indoor gathering, when push came to shove.  The campaign had said that anyone who felt uncomfortable or potentially unwell shouldn't show up, and it appears as though quite a few people decided to err on the side of caution.  Members of the president's own COVID task force, including Doctors Fauci and Birx, reportedly advised against holding a rally under the circumstances (indoors, no distancing, etc).  The campaign pressed forward anyway, but the people voted with their feet.  In a state with surging infections, a statistic that requires some context and nuance, many simply were not prepared to take the risk.

Second, there were concerns about counter-protests that could conceivably get ugly.  Despite the Trump campaign's spin, there is not much evidence that Trump backers were blocked in significant numbers from entering the rally site.  There were a few small skirmishes and verbal confrontations outside, but it was pretty low key, all things considered.  But that benign outcome wasn't guaranteed to be the case.  There's a decent chance that in the face of so much social unrest and violence playing out in the streets of American cities in recent weeks, some would-be attendees decided that it wasn't worth stepping into a situation that could turn into a dangerous tinder box, as had been signaled by Tulsa's Republican mayor.  Third, ironically, the campaign's loud bragging about sky-high RSVP numbers almost certainly contributed to 'eh, maybe not this time' decisions from on-the-fence supporters:


And fourth, there's the teenage prank story line, hints of which started to bubble up in the days leading up to the event.  The New York Times covers this angle:

TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music groups claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets for Mr. Trump’s campaign rally as a prank. After the Trump campaign’s official account @TeamTrump posted a tweet asking supporters to register for free tickets using their phones on June 11, K-pop fan accounts began sharing the information with followers, encouraging them to register for the rally — and then not show. The trend quickly spread on TikTok, where videos with millions of views instructed viewers to do the same, as CNN reported on Tuesday. “Oh no, I signed up for a Trump rally, and I can’t go,” one woman joked, along with a fake cough, in a TikTok posted on June 15. Thousands of other users posted similar tweets and videos to TikTok that racked up millions of views. Representatives for TikTok did not immediately respond to requests for comment...Many users deleted their posts after 24 to 48 hours in order to conceal their plan and keep it from spreading into the mainstream internet. “The majority of people who made them deleted them after the first day because we didn’t want the Trump campaign to catch wind,” Mr. Daniel said. “These kids are smart and they thought of everything.”

These kids appear to have enormously inflated expectations and ticket counts (Team Trump denies this, and it's unclear whether or how this push impacted attendance), compounding the other factors mentioned above. And thus, a dismal showing came to pass. Again, 6,000-8,000 attendees at a presidential rally is quite large, generally speaking -- especially so during a pandemic. But due to Team Trump's own standards and frequent mentions of the president's ability to draw humongous crowds, the bar was set extremely high. In the end, 95 to 99 percent of requested tickets went unused. Even if fully half of the overall RSVP number was attributable to the TikTok prank, a ten percent turnout rate among everyone else would still have resulted in 50,000 Trump fans gathering in Tulsa. This event didn't come close to that figure, even in the heart of the reddest of red states. 

So if this was intended to be a morale booster for the principal, as well as a means of generating quasi-convincing talking points about robust enthusiasm in spite of flagging polling numbers, the rally must be viewed as an embarrassment. We'll see if anyone gets the axe because of it, or if millions of online and TV viewers might salvage things a bit.  Regardless, it really looks and feels like Trump is in trouble right now, as the campaign enters the summer slog.  I'll leave you with two clips from Trump's speech, including an ill-advised 'joke' (this piece is worth reading, since we're back on the subject of COVID testing) that the Biden campaign is already seizing on: