the point trumps bad year
Trump's presidency is at its lowest point right now
07:12 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

With just four months until Election Day, the Trump campaign is struggling to deploy what was supposed to be a chief feature of the President’s reelection effort – the signature Trump rally.

Three weeks after the poorly attended Tulsa event, the hangover is still being felt inside the campaign, aides and advisers tell CNN. And safety concerns over bad weather caused the campaign to postpone a rally scheduled for Saturday in New Hampshire, even as skies were expected to be clear by the time Trump took the stage.

Attendance in Tulsa fell well short of what officials had publicly touted, and the event was widely seen as a disastrous attempt to reset the campaign in the midst of the President’s falling poll numbers. A handful of aides tested positive for coronavirus the day of the rally, and dozens more had to quarantine afterward. Sources close to the campaign say that the fallout shook some operatives’ faith in the one area the campaign has always been able to flawlessly execute.

Before the coronavirus hit, campaign officials expected to be holding one to two rallies a week by now. But with cases surging across the country, it’s unclear if the campaign will ever be able to work its way up to that pace. And while there are serious questions about whether rallies are the right strategy in the midst of a pandemic, Trump’s bullheaded determination to press forward with in-person events is forcing the campaign to find a way.

The President’s difficulty turning on his rally machine is indicative of the broader problems the coronavirus poses to him. Not only has the pandemic kept him off the campaign trail, it’s ruined much of his case for reelection, sinking the economy, killing more than 135,000 people so far and robbing him of any argument that Americans are better off than they were four years ago.

Trump has done relatively little in-person campaigning this summer. Besides a handful of closed-door fundraising events, including one on Friday night in Miami that netted $10 million and a “Students for Trump” rally in Phoenix in June, the President has largely kept off the trail.

By contrast, President Barack Obama had an extremely active summer when he was running for reelection in 2012. Obama spoke at 18 campaign events in June 2012 and 27 in July, a mix of private fundraisers and public rallies in swing states across the country.

But with weak poll numbers and bevy of challenges before the country, Trump has not yet been able to harness the power of his signature mega rallies – and the time to do so is growing short.

“I think there is a growing sense of concern that the campaign isn’t functioning as we want it to,” one donor close to the campaign told CNN in the immediate aftermath of Tulsa.

The value of the rally

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally on March 2, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Trump rally is in many ways the central aspect of the President’s political brand, and a hallmark of his success as a first-time populist politician. The events offer an essential psychological boost to a President who has always fed on the energy of crowds – and, now more than ever, is in need of that boost as he stews over his sinking polls and how the pandemic has upturned his political prospects.

“He can’t win without rallies,” one Trump adviser said, pointing more to the psychological effect of the rallies than anything else. “When he does them, it is a little bit of a release and takes some pressure off of his psyche and him believing that he’s not getting his narrative out and everyone’s against him.”

In the words of a GOP strategist from a crucial swing state: “He needs rallies like a kite needs wind.”

Beyond stoking Trump’s mood, rallies serve an important strategic purpose as well. Since 2016, Trump rallies have been an important engine feeding voter information into the Republican National Committee’s massive database. At each rally, the campaign collects personal information from some of Trump’s most ardent supporters – email addresses and phone numbers that are then plugged into the RNC’s voter file.

That information doesn’t just provide a snapshot of the President’s biggest fans, it also helps identify potential new voters, including those who rarely vote and are especially valuable turnout targets.

Rallies also provide the campaign with free TV coverage from local affiliates that can amplify the President’s message in parts of the country that are harder to reach. It’s no accident that Trump has conducted several interviews in recent weeks with reporters from local TV broadcast networks.

Even the campaign seems to recognize that something has been lost with the lack of rallies.

“There is nothing like a Donald Trump rally,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director. “It is a unique phenomenon in American political history; it is difficult to replicate that experience.”

Still, the President’s political operation has found ways to get Trump to deliver a campaign-focused message at official White House events – using the power of the incumbency to deliver a pair of Independence Day speeches at Mount Rushmore and at the White House, which set the tone for a divisive reelection campaign message.

“We’re pursuing an all-of-the-above strategy, and our goal is to put President Trump in front of as many patriotic Americans as possible,” said Jason Miller, the campaign’s top strategist. “Rallies are going to happen. They’re going to be bigger than anything Joe Biden is able to pull off this year.”

The fallout from Tulsa

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Internally, several officials have blamed campaign manager Brad Parscale for the Tulsa debacle, faulting him for not only touting the number of sign-ups but also for badly overestimating how many people would show up.

Hope Hicks, one of the President’s longest-serving aides, warned Parscale against touting ticket request numbers, reminding him that the number one rule in politics is not to overpromise and underdeliver, a source familiar with the matter said. But Parscale forged ahead, tweeting about the 1 million ticket requests the campaign had received.

And other officials estimated before the rally that a maximum of 15,000 people would likely attend, by looking at the ZIP codes of those who had signed up, using data modeling and factoring in the human element: the ongoing pandemic. But Parscale was confident the 19,000-person arena would be packed and the campaign even planned for Trump to address an overflow venue.

Officials say Trump’s relationship with Parscale hasn’t been the same since.

“He does not like Brad,” the adviser said, noting that Trump has taken to frequently cutting Parscale off during meetings and disagreeing with nearly every position he takes – at times ultimately agreeing with the same position when it is later reiterated by another aide in the room.

“It’s very clear that when Brad offers a position, Trump decides to be against it,” the adviser said.

In response to questions about Parscale’s standing, the Trump campaign sent the following statement attributed to Lara Trump, the President’s daughter-in-law and a senior adviser: “He has the confidence of the President and the entire family.”

Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, speaks before a rally at the target center on October 10, 2019 in Minneapolis.

“I think Parscale probably needs to go,” said the donor close to the campaign. “I think a lot of folks would feel more comfortable with someone who’s actually run a campaign before.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. The biggest staff change in the wake of the Tulsa debacle: Michael Glassner – the campaign’s chief operating officer, who previously handled rallies – has been reassigned to deal with legal affairs.

But for other Republicans, the problems are less about the management and marketing and more inherent to the product itself. The candidate and the campaign don’t have a good story to tell.

“The rallies are a barometer of voter sentiment,” Dan Eberhart, an oil executive and Trump donor, told CNN. “The living embodiment of Trump’s slumping popularity.”

One Republican strategist working on congressional races said Trump and the GOP need a “choice” election between Trump and Biden that the environment isn’t giving them.

“It’s all a referendum,” said the strategist. “Trump is swinging at ghosts.”

Still, some campaign officials remain confident that Tulsa was an outlier – the result of overhyped expectations and news of campaign staffers testing positive ahead of the rally.

Time is running short

Though there are still four months until the election, some Republican operatives say the campaign is running out of time to turn things around. Given the amount of mail-in and early voting that will happen this cycle, the die could be cast by September, when early voting begins in some states.

Katie Walsh Shields is a veteran of GOP campaigns and has held top jobs at the RNC.

Without rallies, the task of bringing swing voters into the Trump fold will fall chiefly to the RNC’s traditional ground game operation. Unlike the core Trump campaign team – Parscale; Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner; and the President himself – the get-out-the-vote side is run by old political hands with years of experience in GOP politics.

That includes veteran operatives such as Katie Walsh Shields, currently the senior adviser for data at the RNC, who spent years working for the party, and Chris Carr, the political director for the campaign and the RNC. Carr worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee during the tea party wave in 2010 and is a RNC veteran.

Chris Carr is political director for the Trump campaign and the RNC.

Campaign officials boast of the experience and institutional knowledge behind the Trump data operation – what Parscale has called the “Death Star” – which can work in tandem with the RNC’s powerful voter file. Even with fewer rallies and a country upended by the pandemic, the years of work put into learning as much as they can about their voters mean Trump and the GOP have a leg up on Democrats, says one Trump campaign official familiar with the data team.

“This process is much more scientific than it has ever been and it is a lot more accurate,” said Rick Gorka, the spokesman for the Trump Victory Fund, the joint operation between the campaign and the RNC. “Voters tend not to just show up organically; you need to find a way to motivate them and convince them to participate. We’ve never stopped doing that because of this digital operation.”

While there has been consternation from donors about several aspects of Trump’s reelection campaign, there’s more confidence about how well the Trump data operation and the RNC ground game can work together.

On Monday, the RNC and the campaign announced they have now hired 1,500 field staffers, and Trump campaign aides describe the ground operation as the largest ever assembled by a Republican nominee.

“I think it’s a lot bigger, a lot more effective, and it’s gone local,” Doug Deason, a Dallas businessman, Republican donor and Trump fundraiser, said of the Trump and party ground game. “It’s a lot more local than it was. It’s much more organized. There are a lot more people on the ground, a lot more people on the phones.”

Deason, who skipped the Tulsa rally over concerns about Covid transmission and anti-Trump protests, insists that even without the rallies, Trump’s base remains solidly behind the President so he can finish the job of disrupting the status quo in Washington.

“He’ll be able to really break up and bust up DC in a second term,” Deason said of Trump. “All of his base knows that. That’s the goal. That’s why we hired him. We didn’t hire him to be a wonderful role model for our children. We’ve had that for decades and it hasn’t worked.”