Trump’s campaign tries to recapture its magic on the virtual campaign trail. Will it succeed?

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — There are backlit billboards announcing the upcoming campaign event for President Trump. Outside a large arena footage of Trump plays on giant screens as supporters chant “Four more years!” Inside the arena, Trump’s surrogates appear on a large Jumbotron as the crowd roars. 

This spectacle seems unthinkable in the age of the coronavirus and social distancing, but it’s playing out on a near nightly basis. However, the arena in question isn’t filled with real crowds, it’s a 3D animated venue that introduces the YouTube broadcasts that the Trump campaign has been airing during the pandemic lockdown.

While rallies had been Trump’s trademark prior to the public health crisis, his reelection team has embraced virtual events and believes they provide a major advantage over his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, on the “digital campaign trail.”

“It took Joe Biden like four days to set up a podium in his basement. We flipped the switch in 24 hours,” Trump campaign deputy communications director Erin Perrine said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Watching Joe Biden deliver an address on a smartphone. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Trump campaign is eager to contrast their swift embrace of virtual events with Biden’s, which took a few days to construct a studio in his Delaware home and whose initial online events were beset by technical glitches. When the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of presidential campaign events in March, Trump’s team already had a live-stream operation in place to broadcast his signature arena rallies online.

Yet despite the Trump campaign’s efforts to create a virtual campaign trail, Biden still maintains a close lead in national general election polls. And Trump’s approval rating has also been dropping, as polls show a majority of voters question his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Those numbers, along with the central role in-person rallies played in Trump’s successful White House bid in 2016, raise the question of whether the digital version will be enough to help the president score a second term. 

While the Biden campaign has also been building up its virtual presence, the Trump campaign appears in many respects to be ahead, with seven times as many followers on YouTube. And where the Trump campaign is broadcasting nightly, Biden’s YouTube page shows just 11 public virtual events in the past three weeks.

Biden’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

In many respects, the Trump campaign was more prepared than the Biden camp when the pandemic forced campaign events online. Perrine says the Trump campaign was able to transition to virtual events relatively easily after moving all campaign operations online starting March 13. Those virtual rallies have all the bells and whistles you might expect for the campaign of a real estate mogul who built his brand on relentless self-promotion. 

“If they can’t go to a Trump rally — we all know there’s nothing like a Trump rally — we want to make sure that we’re keeping our voters engaged. And so we care about the production quality. The president cares about that stuff. He always has,” Perrine said. 

One thing the virtual rallies haven’t featured is Trump himself. The campaign has also drawn all of its traffic without the president promoting virtual events on his Twitter page, where he has over 80 million followers. Perrine said she couldn’t say when Trump might appear on one of the online broadcasts.

“You’ve got to ask the president and the White House about his schedule ... but we’re going to continue to be out here pushing his message. That’s our job. And that’s our goal. And all of this campaign remains laser-focused on getting four more years for President Trump,” said Perrine.

Even without Trump, the digital rallies are packed with features and guests. A producer who works on video effects and requested anonymity because their company does not endorse political parties estimated that the brief intro animation with the 3D arena and “VIRTUAL RALLY AHEAD” billboard cost tens of thousands of dollars. It’s one of many features that appear on-screen during the Trump campaign broadcasts.

President Trump speaking from the White House last week. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Many of the virtual events begin with an ad for the “official Trump 2020 app” that exhorts viewers to “forget the mainstream media” and “get your facts straight from the source” as tribal drums pulsate and a graphic of a silver phone emblazoned with Trump’s portrait spins across the screen. Throughout the broadcast, alerts pop on the screen allowing the audience to buy Trump merchandise, including shot glasses, playing cards and an “official freedom hat.”

Perrine said regular hosts and guests were mailed equipment to enable them to set up home studios, and given light kits, microphones and cables to ensure the high-quality production values. “They’ve got signs and coffee mugs and things to put up branding in the background because it all matters in the larger picture of how we put forward the president’s campaign,” Perrine said. “So no detail is overlooked.”  

Perrine hosts events from her home in conjunction with the campaign’s “Army for Trump” program that’s designed to encourage the president’s supporters to become a “volunteer or activist.” Perrine’s show is focused on the campaign’s field operations in key states. “My husband has helped me set up the ironing board to put our lights on for the camera shot in the corner of my guest bedroom,” Perrine said with a laugh. 

In total, the Trump campaign says it has hosted over 50 broadcasts with over 100 guests since going virtual in March. There have been virtual events every night since late April. 

One of the core messages of these online events is what a senior Trump campaign official, who requested anonymity to discuss strategy, described as “President Trump’s work to battle the coronavirus and lead America back to greatness.” The virtual rallies are also focused on contrasting Trump and Biden’s respective approaches to China, pushing the narrative that the former vice president was too accommodating to Beijing.

The Trump campaign official said they hope to protect the states he won in 2016 and expand those victories. Specifically, they cited Wisconsin and Minnesota as targets for expansion. Wisconsin would seem to be an odd fit, since Trump already won it in the 2016 race. However, Minnesota went for Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign has other ambitious goals. The senior campaign official said they have engaged in California, which Trump lost by over 30 points in 2016, making it a decidedly ambitious long shot for his campaign. 

“We’ve made over a million phone calls in California,” the official said. “We’re activated across the country.” 

Donald Trump Jr. interviews Ted Nugent on the internet show 'Triggered.'

As the campaign pursues its aggressive goals, there were eight digital events on tap this week, including the semi-regular “Triggered” show hosted by the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and programming targeted at military families, Asian-Americans and the religious audience. The roster of surrogates at these virtual events has been an eclectic mix, including Republican politicians like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and more unexpected guests like former New York Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry. 

On last week’s episode of “Triggered,” the president’s son appeared with classic rock guitarist Ted Nugent, who said he was streaming in from the “freedom-drenched environs of Texas” and railed against the “Japanese punks” we defeated in World War II and the way Democratic governors are handling the coronavirus. Nugent criticized the lockdowns designed to stem the spread of the illness and praised his “real Michiganiac blood brothers” for going to the Capitol in that state to protest its shelter-in-place order.

“The reaction is worse than the virus itself,” Nugent said of the lockdowns. 

Biden’s campaign, which is being vastly outspent by Trump, lacks the pizzazz of the president’s raucous and flashy virtual rallies. Biden’s broadcasts are more like a standard videoconference, with the former vice president and his guests on sometimes grainy screens set against a plain blue backdrop. 

Despite the Trump campaign’s confidence, the inability to hold physical rallies is clearly a loss for his campaign. Trump’s arena appearances were a signature element of his campaign in 2016 and he has continued to hold them throughout his presidency. Jason Miller, senior communications adviser on Trump’s first White House bid, told Yahoo News the events were personally important to Trump, who is fond of recounting the size of his crowds.

Trump supporters at a rally in Charlotte, N.C., March 2, 2020. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

The rallies “would show people all around the country that there was energy and enthusiasm for the campaign, and they were not alone in being Trump supporters,” Miller explained. “The Trump rallies were oftentimes our only positive information flow in fighting back against the mainstream media. … People would look and say, ‘Wow, there are others who believe in President Trump, just like me.’”

Along with the psychological importance the rallies held for Trump and his fans, they also brought something more concrete to his campaign. Sometimes boasting upwards of 20,000 attendees, the gatherings provided a valuable opportunity for Trump’s campaign to register voters and collect contact information from supporters. 

Miller believes the loss of physical events is a “greater loss” for Biden, who saw the campaign trail give way to quarantine just as he was emerging from the Democratic primary. “Biden's never been able to get his sea legs and coalesce his Democratic base.”

According to the Trump campaign, the virtual rallies have drawn 372 million views since April 1, though the campaign said it doesn’t know how many individual visitors have watched. 

Along with the virtual rallies, the Trump campaign has launched a new app since the lockdowns began.  “We gamified it so [supporters] can earn points toward things like getting into rallies early, meeting the president, or getting a discount on merchandise,” the senior official said. “We’ve made it something that people want to engage in and be part of.”

Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In addition to the app, the senior official also said the campaign has been using Trump Talk, a program it created for volunteers to make calls “much more aggressively” since the pandemic took hold. The campaign said it has signed on 300,000 new volunteers who are calling voters to drum up support for the president. 

In one week, the campaign made 10 million of these calls to voters, and the senior official argued that increasing digital operations may be an even more effective method of contacting and activating supporters in rural areas than traditional rallies and field offices. “In states like Maine or Arizona, where you’re going to hit larger contingents that are more rural, they'’e actually finding that this is a really great way to be able to stay connected with people,” the official said.

For his part, Trump is eager to return to his signature in-person events. On May 21, as he toured a Ford factory in Michigan that is manufacturing protective gear to stop the spread of the virus, Trump told reporters he’s eager to return to the stage.

“We got to get back to the rallies,” Trump said. “I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later.”

Miller, Trump’s former adviser, predicted the president is going to be on a physical stage once the campaign figures out a way to make it feel normal. “There’ve been some, some crazy ideas put out,” Miller said. “He’s gonna want to see something good that’s as traditional as possible.”

With indications that the virus is less likely to spread outside, Miller theorized that Trump’s return to rallies could mean moving to outdoor events, particularly in the warm summer weather. Either way, Miller predicted Trump will return to live events before the end of the year. 

“I think that the two biggest indicators that life will ever return to normal as we enter this fall will be, one, football on the weekends,” Miller said, “and, number two, Trump rallies.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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