President Donald Trump yearns for the magic of his 2016 upstart campaign: the multi-rally days, crisscrossing the country in a Trump-branded plane, the screaming crowds.
So he’s designed a 2016 redux in 2020 to recapture that spirit, casting off the constraints of a pandemic, his own presidency and even the advice of some of his own advisers.
Trump views rallies in battleground states as the linchpin of his closing argument, a means to excite his supporters and ensure they vote on Nov. 3. But many Republicans close to the White House, former senior administration officials and political advisers say the rallies are largely a way to keep the unscripted and undisciplined president occupied, since they do little to persuade new Trump voters. Rallies, they note, do not woo senior citizens, independents or suburban women, many of whom have moved away from the Trump ticket this election cycle. Most of Trump’s rallies are no longer televised nationally as they once were.
And with coronavirus infection rates climbing, the Trump rallies often draw negative headlines in local news markets because the packed events defy public health guidelines, featuring few masks and almost no social distancing. After Trump’s recent rallies in Bemidji and Duluth, Minn. — both in counties the Trump campaign hopes to win — local health authorities connected roughly 24 new Covid-19 cases to the rallies and protests outside of them.
“I don’t think he has a lot of other options, if they are trying to figure out a way for him to spend his time,” said one former senior administration official. “The president easily gets stuck in things of the past and tries to repeat them. Rallies are the best thing they have for him. He wants to be on the road, and you can’t tell him to do something different.”
Trump’s political allies and advisers argue the rallies provide the campaign with coveted data they can use to target voters during the final days. And, they say, the gatherings give supporters a way to feel connected to the candidate, who often delivers 90-minute speeches full of Trump’s greatest hits and grievances.
Perhaps most importantly, the rush of the rallies and crowds puts Trump in a good mood. “He gets a lot of energy from them,” said a second former senior administration official.
“It’s about making sure as many people have access to him as possible,” said one Republican close to the campaign. “One of the things that got Trump over the hump in 2016 was his willingness to physically outwork Clinton. In the last week, he barnstormed all across the country and had 11 events in two days before Election Day. That week was the most consequential of the election. He’s replicating that effort this time around, but it’ll be more sustained over a longer period of time.”
A Trump campaign official argued the rallies do draw new voters. The official said the campaign’s internal data showed nearly a quarter percent of rally goers at a recent Prescott, Ariz. gathering did not consider themselves Republicans, and that nearly 38 percent had not voted in 2016. Similarly, data from a Tucson rally indicated nearly 29 percent of the attendees did not vote in 2016 — stats, the campaign argues, that give credence to the idea of hidden Trump supporters.
This week alone, Trump is scheduled to do rallies in Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida, while Vice President Mike Pence travels to Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana for events.
“This is a get-out-the-vote effort, and the rallies help that,” said a senior administration official, who argued the margin of victory in North Carolina’s recent congressional special election was smaller than the attendance at a rally Trump spoke at the night before ballots were cast.
“I think you could see that again and again this year,” the official added. “If he can speak to another 100,000 people in Michigan in the next two weeks, that might end up being the difference.”
In a statement, Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, said rallies are a chance for the public “to hear directly” from the president “about his vision for the country,” adding that the events “exemplify the palpable enthusiasm for our president.”
She added: “While Joe Biden takes five out of six days off leading into a debate, President Trump and his team are using rallies to energize the activist class, dominate local coverage for days, and collect data from new voters.”
Not all Republicans are convinced the rallies help the president that much.
Campaign officials insist Trump’s closing argument should focus on the president portraying himself as the best leader to rebuild the economy. Trump’s recent rallies have not stuck to that message. Instead, they lean heavily on the president’s own gripes toward Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the media, Democrats or the various investigations into his conduct as president. He often also downplays the coronavirus or disparages his own health officials.
“The problem with his rallies is he gets worked up and doesn’t confine his message,” said Ed Rollins, chair of the pro-Trump Great America PAC. “Beyond the immediate audience, the message that gets carried is usually the most outrageous thing he says.”
Trump is predictably undeterred by these concerns.
On a call with his own campaign staff earlier this week, Trump laid out his rally strategy. He told staffers he intended to do three rallies a day, with five on the final day of the campaign, spread over states like Arizona, New Mexico and Minnesota.
“They say that no human being could do that,” Trump said about the pace.
“Two weeks ago, I was in the hospital and people were shocked that I came out so fast and so healthy, because I came out, and within a day, I held a rally,” he added. “And when people come out of the hospital, they are supposed to be sitting in bed for a long time.”
Indeed, the rallies are intended to demonstrate Trump’s superior fitness after contracting Covid-19 just as much as they are meant to excite his supporters.
And the rallies offer the president his own form of soothing, along with a major ego boost in the middle of a tough campaign, said aides, advisers and allies. Trump feeds off the energy of a crowd regardless of whether the appearance makes the most political sense or can help him make gains against Biden in states like Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia.
“Trump thinks, ‘I have the rallies to prove that I am the greatest. No one can attract crowds like me,’” said Tony Schwartz, the author and Trump critic who ghost wrote “The Art of the Deal” and just published a memoir titled “Dealing with the Devil: My Mother, Trump and Me.” “It is like taking a shot of testosterone to pump himself up, particularly now.”