COVID halts rallies: will it stop Trump?
Illustration Credit: Cveta Gotovats

President Trump is widely renowned for his popular but controversial campaign events and rallies. Having formed the crux of his campaign in 2016, Trump’s vigorous rallies propelled him into the political spotlight. His anti-establishment rhetoric resonated deeply with many groups across the country and presented a new challenge to American politics. But with the coronavirus pandemic curtailing his public presence, will the President be able to generate the same levels of enthusiasm as four years ago? 

For decades, political rallies have been a key mechanism for generating support and publicity. In recent years, Trump has reintroduced them with a significantly increased media following. However, as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, traditional campaign methods are becoming increasingly hazardous. Many will have to be abandoned altogether. With no historical precedent for candidates to rely on, Joe Biden’s assertion that 2020 will be the “most unusual campaign… in modern history” looks likely to be valid. 

The pandemic presents a particular challenge to politicians in the USA who chiefly rely on in-person campaigning to promote their public profile. President Trump had previously been dubious about whether rallies would continue, with Vice President Pence suggesting events would be suspended on a “day to day basis” from March onwards. Despite this, Trump has rejected medical advice and has so far refused to give up this vital public forum. 

As was seen with Trump’s attempt in Tulsa on 20th June, in-person rallies no longer devise the same levels of excitement and momentum that they have in the past. It is estimated that only around 6,000 supporters attended the event last month, despite the venue’s capacity being approximately 19,000. This was an underwhelming turnout for the President, who has previously welcomed crowds of over 15,000

He also claimed over 1 million tickets had been requested for the Oklahoman rally. The low attendance has since been attributed to teenagers on the app TikTok making fake reservations, presenting an additional challenge to his re-election bid. With anyone able to register for tickets from the USA, it will be extremely difficult to ensure that future rallies, if they occur, are successful and reach the right people.

Fiascoes like these may cause Trump to lose the advantages of this setting entirely. Combined with a concerning increase in bizarre behaviour at rallies, this has arguably served to undermine the strength of Trump’s re-election campaign. Furthermore, the prolific media coverage he has received in the past may not be replicated this year without in-person interaction between Trump and his crowds. 

‘silencing him in a way that could never be done live’

Rallies are a breeding ground for political soundbites. However, without the consistent creation and broadcasting of these clips, Trump is progressively turning to Twitter to share his thoughts. Even though his tweets do gain him publicity, they remain reckless and problematic. Twitter has even resorted to censoring the President for relaying “potentially misleading information”, silencing him in a way that could never be done live.

Trump also came under fire recently for retweeting a video of a supporter shouting “white power”. Evidently, these controversial ideas don’t receive the same reaction when not said by the President himself. To both his supporters and the apathetic, Trump’s voice presented an authenticity  Washington elites lacked. Now with the scope and impact of his voice limited, his straight-talking image is becoming somewhat fractured.

Trump’s setback is similar to that of Senator Bernie Sanders, whose campaign came to an end in early April. Much like Trump, the democratic socialist is well-known for his energetic rallies on the campaign trail. However, Sanders also lost this unique appeal as events migrated online in mid-March and failed to conjure the same support they did in the 2016 primary race

Although social media remained important in promoting his profile and platform, the intimacy and individuality of his rallies could not be digitally replicated. This contributed to his failure to pick up new voters by Super Tuesday, a pivotal day in the primary race. In particular, his inability to turnout the youth vote shows that in spite of repeated attempts, his digital outreach was not engaging enough.

‘Trump may also struggle to evoke the same passion in his supporters’

Sanders’ failed run reflects the importance of rallies in maintaining momentum and indicates that Trump may also struggle to evoke the same passion in his supporters in November. Unlike Sanders, Trump’s likely opponent Joe Biden is an establishment figure. Biden is not perceived as the most effective public speaker, having made several memorable gaffes already this year. However, as a result he relies less heavily on rallies to generate support, instead turning to wealth donors and political insiders.

Although Trump is not solely supported by rallies, he must ensure he does not echo the faults of Sanders’ campaign if he wants to win a second term. Republicans and his supporters will have to hope his voice will remain powerful enough to break through into an increasingly crowded newscycle. With Biden calling off presidential campaign rallies for good and digitising the majority of his events and conferences, Trump must adapt to the current campaign climate. 

Not being able to travel as far and frequently across the country and target key swing states will affect all candidates. Campaigning in these places is vital for securing the most volatile voters. With some states limiting travel, Trump will be unable to bring the same electrifying atmosphere to several key states that handed him his 2016 win. This is an uneasy premise for his campaign as some of the worst hit states, such as Florida, run the risk of turning blue without adequate attention. The President’s team will have to ensure that resources are concentrated in these areas, and he remains in touch with the people.

‘Trump must make these people feel like a priority’

Furthermore, Trump will have to seek new methods of campaigning, whether he decides to continue holding rallies or not. This might include online town-hall meetings and Q&A sessions with groups specifically sourced to bolster his campaign. In particular, it is important that he devises a way to engage with rust-belt voters that rejects the notion that Trump has forgotten those who pivoted his victory. With the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affecting low-income families and manual workers, Trump must make these people feel like a priority. 

Not only have rallies been altered, but the autumnal debates will lose many of the theatrical elements that inspired Trump’s impassioned performances in 2016. It is reasonable to assume that like the final Democrat debate, there will be no live studio audience to ensure public safety. This means that Trump won’t be able to connect directly with or evoke outrage in an audience. Moreover, any bemusing moments or attempts to intimate his opponent could prove difficult. For once he will have to divert his attention to answering questions appropriately in order to mitigate this weakness.

The Democratic convention has also been postponed and scaled-down with a mix of in-person and online features, and the Republican equivalent is likely to follow suit. The convention is not only a chance for nominees to promote the party platform, but equally allow other key figures to endorse them. They also have dramatic elements and are essential for enthusing the party loyalists. 

The loss of rallies is a looming threat to Trump’s campaign. Indeed, It is important to consider that he has lost his best tool for channeling rage and excitement into political popularity. As the situation stands, it will be difficult to draw new voters online. So much of his electoral success relied on those he appealed to and connected with emotionally. His chances rest on whether he can hang onto those sentiments without his rallies. The digital viewership of Tulsa suggests that he may be able to counter the loss of attendance and sustain his public presence, but it remains hard to predict.

As the pandemic progresses, Trump is consistently losing his methods of reaching out, and regaining the spotlight will be a challenge. Perhaps losing the influence of in-person campaigning won’t lead to President Trump’s downfall, but without the rallies, he has lost his primary form of expression.