President Donald Trump's push for a second poll-defying victory is relying on a hallmark of his first – raucous campaign rallies that Trump sees as a crucial sign of voter enthusiasm but that pollsters say may only be cementing his defeat.
Trump held three rallies Monday, all in Pennsylvania, with three more scheduled yesterday and as many as five or six a day expected by the weekend. The rallies befit the showman with roots in reality television – blaring music, slick production, video montages, warm-up speeches, Air Force One as a backdrop and the president himself as the headline attraction. Attendees erupt in screams and cheers at his arrival, and local Republicans say it's unlike any political event they've seen.
But the rallies' impact is far from clear. Republicans say they harvest data from attendees and fire up their base, while Democrats say they get a spike in donations and volunteers, too, and wonder if Trump is merely preaching to the choir.
Holding rallies in defiance of coronavirus health recommendations has fuelled voters' disapproval of his handling of the pandemic – feeding Biden's key argument that Trump has mishandled the first major crisis of his presidency. And pollsters say there's little evidence of a rally boost.
"The rapid-fire Trump rallies, while clearly well-received by the base, have done nothing to tip the scale in President Trump's direction," said Tim Malloy, a pollster from Quinnipiac University.
Trump has held five rallies each in Florida and Pennsylvania since his recovery from the coronavirus, more than any other states, along with repeat stops in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona. Democrat Joe Biden has kept a limited travel schedule, holding two events since last Thursday's debate. And when he does, they are sparsely attended by design, often staged as drive-in rallies, to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Biden is leading Trump by about 8 percentage points in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics. The two are essentially tied in Florida, a critical state to each one's potential victory, and Biden has small leads in most battleground states.
Trump has mocked Biden's small crowd sizes, marvelled at his own turnout and cited it as a sign of a looming "red wave."
But the rallies have a different perception in the pandemic – showing the president, maskless, speaking to thousands of people, crowded together and mostly maskless themselves. Add to that Trump's red-meat rhetoric and it's a recipe to turn off voters in the middle, said Nancy Zdunkewicz, a Democratic pollster with Change Research.
"He needs to win over some folks. And what he's doing is not only preventing him from winning over folks, it's potentially pushing people away that might otherwise be with him – especially with the Covid stuff," she said. "He's highlighting this issue which is the place where he is doing the worst."
In key states, some Democrats welcome a Trump rally.
"Every time he comes into town, we raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. We recruit thousands more volunteers," said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. "First, he usually says something and it ends up costing him votes in this state. Secondly, I've said this for years now, there's no one in the Democratic Party that's galvanising our party more than Donald Trump. He is the great unifier."
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said Trump's rallies have energised voters in the state, which is essential to Trump's re-election chances. "If he's saying something that's off the rails it fires people up to get involved," he said. "The other thing I think it does – his rallies are a nonstop reminder about how much he does not take the Covid crisis seriously."
Other Democrats across the country have essentially shrugged off the president's events in their backyard. "I am sure his base is eating it up, but these events don't change minds," said Alison Jones, chair of the Pima County Democratic Party in Arizona, where Trump held a rally last week.
Trump is all-in on the rallies. He sees the crowds as a sign that he's on a comeback tour, rather than a goodbye tour. "This is not the crowd that comes in second, OK?" he said Sunday in New Hampshire. "It's like a poll, right? But much more accurate."
Local Republican officials say Trump's rallies are typically in smaller cities that rarely get such attention, and where he needs strong turnout to offset Democratic strongholds in major cities.
"When the president comes to your area, you really pay attention, because a lot of places obviously haven't ever had a president come," said Wisconsin GOP Chairman Andrew Hitt. The airport rallies particularly excite the crowd, he said. "All of that theatre excites them. It's an opportunity to continue to keep your base engaged, continue to keep them energised."
Republicans marvel at the dedication – people stand in lines for hours, sometimes overnight, to see him. "I have not seen this type of response, ever," to other political events, said Rae Chornenky, chair of the Maricopa County Republicans, the Arizona county that includes Phoenix. "And even with performers – I got to see The Doors in 1969, and there was this kind of excitement, but nobody lined up for days."
No additional benefit
Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University professor who studied Trump's rally impact in the 2016 and 2018 cycles, found they didn't move the needle in the states where they were held. He expects the same in 2020.
"It doesn't seem like you're getting any additional benefit," he said.
For his part, Biden said Monday in Pennsylvania that the reason his strategy looks different is that "we're not putting out super spreaders," referring to events that widely transmit the virus. "Everybody's wearing a mask and trying as best as we can to be socially distanced," he said.
Trump appears to bask in the thousands of people who flock to each rally, many from out of state, and the rock-concert atmosphere.
The campaign collects contact information from anyone who signs up to attend, allowing them to identify potential new voters. Trump has lately taken to asking crowds if they've already voted – drawing only scant cheers at his first rally Monday, whereas more cheered when asked if they still had to vote. The crowd erupted when he asked if they'd all vote for him.
"The rally has always been, and is, an important part of the campaign. We gather an awful lot of voter data from those 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 base election. We know through data that that is absolutely untrue. The president is expanding his support," Murtaugh said. "The president's rally is absolutely the best weapon the campaign has because our best asset is the candidate, President Trump."
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement