WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s main bet for a second victory that contradicts the polls is a hallmark of his first campaign: the loud election rallies, which the American president sees as a crucial sign of voter enthusiasm.
His main weapon, however, may also prove to be the spade of his defeat.
Trump held three rallies on Monday, all in Pennsylvania. He had three more scheduled for Tuesday, and up to five or six a day over the weekend.
The rallies are appropriate for the showman from a reality show: there is strident music, clever production, video montages, warming speeches, a backdrop for the presidential plane and the president himself as the main attraction. Participants burst into cheers and applause as they arrived, and local Republicans say it doesn’t look like any other political event ever seen before.
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But the impact of the rallies is far from clear. Republicans say they collect data from participants and increase their base. Democrats say they receive an increase in donations and in volunteers, too, and wonder if Trump is just preaching to converts.
The holding of rallies challenging the coronavirus ‘health recommendations fueled voters’ disapproval of the pandemic’s treatment – fueling Biden’s key argument that Trump mismanaged the first major crisis of his presidency. Research says there is little evidence of positive effects of rallies.
“Trump’s jet rallies, while clearly well received by the base, did nothing to tip the balance toward the president,” said Tim Malloy, a researcher at Quinnipiac University.
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Trump has held five rallies in Florida and five in Pennsylvania since his coronavirus recovery, more than any other state, as well as repeated visits to North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona. Democrat Joe Biden has kept a tight travel schedule, holding two events since last Thursday’s debate. And when he did, the audience was purposely restricted. There were rallies without people getting out of their cars, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Biden is ahead of Trump by about 8 percentage points in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics. The two are essentially tied in Florida, an important state for victory. Biden has a small advantage in most undefined states.
Trump scoffed at the small size of Biden’s audience. He boasted of his own supporters present and cited this as a sign of an approaching “red wave”.
Alan Abramowitz, a professor at Emory University who studied the impact of Trump’s rallies on the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, found that they did not touch the pointer in the states where they were held. He expects the same in 2020.
“It doesn’t look like you’re getting any additional benefits,” he said.
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For his part, Biden said on Monday in Pennsylvania that the reason his strategy looks different is that “we are not providing super-propagator encounters”, referring to events that widely transmit the virus.
“Everyone is wearing a mask and trying their best to be socially distant,” he said.
Trump seems to revel in the thousands of people who flock to each rally, many from outside the state, and the mood of a rock concert.
The campaign collects contact information from anyone who signs up to participate, allowing them to identify potential new voters. Trump recently started asking audiences if they had already voted – getting only sparse applause at his first rally on Monday, while more applause when asked if they have yet to vote. The crowd exploded when he asked if everyone would vote for him.
– The rally has always been, and is, an important part of the campaign. We have collected a huge amount of voter data from these rallies – said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign. – The media and Democrats can scoff at the rally if they want to, and think that the president is running a strictly basic election. We know from data that this is absolutely false. The president is expanding his support. The president’s rally is absolutely the best weapon the campaign has, because our best asset is the candidate, President Trump.
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Local Republican officials say Trump’s rallies are usually in smaller cities, which rarely receive so much attention, and where he needs strong participation to make up for Democratic bastions in big cities.
“When the president comes to your area, you really pay attention, because in many places obviously a president never came,” said Wisconsin Republican Party president Andrew Hitt.
Airport rallies particularly excite the public, he said.
– That whole theater thrills them. It is an opportunity to continue to keep your base involved, to continue to keep it energized.
Republicans are amazed at the dedication: people stand in lines for hours, sometimes at night, to see him.
“I’ve never seen that kind of response to other political events,” said Rae Chornenky, president of Republicans for Maricopa County, Arizona County that includes Phoenix. – And even with artists. I got to see the Doors in 1969, and there was that kind of excitement. But no one lined up for days.
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But the rallies have a unique understanding of the pandemic. They show the president, without a mask, speaking to thousands of people in the crowd; and, for the most part, themselves without a mask. Add to that Trump’s vehement rhetoric and it’s a recipe for driving out moderate voters, said Nancy Zdunkewicz, a Democratic researcher at Change Research.
– He needs to win over some people. And what he’s doing is not just stopping him from winning over people, he’s potentially driving away the people who could be with him, especially because of Covid – she said. – He is highlighting this issue, which is where he is getting worse.
In major states, some Democrats welcome a Trump rally.
– Every time he comes to town, we raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. We recruited thousands of volunteers, ”said Ken Martin, president of the Minnesota Rural Labor Democratic Party. – First, he usually says things that end up costing him votes in this state. Second, I have said this for years, there is no one in the Democratic Party who galvanizes our party more than Donald Trump. He is the great unifier.
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Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper said the Trump rallies energized state voters, which is essential to Trump’s chances of reelection.
“If he’s saying something off the rails, it encourages people to get involved,” he said. – And I also think that, yes, his rallies are a constant reminder of how much he doesn’t take the Covid crisis seriously ”
Other Democrats across the country have largely ignored the president’s events in his backyard.
“I’m sure your base is eating everything, but these events don’t change minds,” said Alison Jones, president of the Democratic Party in Pima County, Arizona, where Trump held a rally last week.
Trump bets. He sees the crowd as a sign that he is on a return tour, rather than a farewell tour.
– This is not a crowd that comes in second, okay? – he said Sunday in New Hampshire. – It’s like research, right? But much more accurate.
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