Trump’s Tulsa rally: Small setback or sign of trouble?

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Mike Bebernes
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·6 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

After months without any in-person events, President Trump intended to get his reelection campaign back up and running with a raucous rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday. Things didn't go as planned.

Despite claims that more than 1 million tickets had been requested, only about 6,200 people attended. News coverage of the rally showed whole sections of empty seats in the arena. A second stage had been erected outside the venue so the president could address what was expected to be an overflow crowd of thousands. It was taken down without being used.

A number of explanations have been offered for the lackluster attendance. The president’s campaign said protesters had blocked his supporters from entering the arena, though reporters on the ground have refuted that claim. Teenagers on the social media platform TikTok said they made reservations for the event with no plans to show. Warnings from public health officials that the event could pose a serious risk of spreading the coronavirus may also have stunted turnout.

Why there’s debate

The president’s allies and critics largely agree that the rally was a letdown. There’s significant disagreement, however, over what it may mean for Trump’s chances at winning another term in November.

To some observers, the president’s inability to draw a sizable crowd in a state he won by 36 points in 2016 is a sign that enthusiasm among his base supporters has eroded. Typically, one disappointing rally may not be a big deal, but Saturday’s poor showing came at a time when Trump’s campaign was in desperate need of a win, election analysts say. The majority of the public disapproves of how he has handled both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, which has helped Joe Biden build a lead in national and swing state polls. The Tulsa event could have been a chance to reverse that trend, but instead it helped solidify the narrative of a campaign in crisis, some political analysts say.

The content of the president’s speech may have been even more inauspicious than the crowd size, some argue. News coverage after the address focused on Trump’s lengthy explanation of why he had walked awkwardly down a ramp and his claim that he had advised his coronavirus task force to “slow the testing down” to keep the number of positive cases lower. What the speech lacked, some argue, was a clear case of why voters should want him in office for another four years.

Others warn against drawing too many conclusions from a single event — especially during such uncertain times. Elections aren’t determined by the size of rally crowds. Concern over the virus may have kept many Trump supporters from attending the rally, but it may not have the same impact on Election Day. Trump’s reelection chances will hinge on his ability to manage the economic, public health and social crises currently gripping the country, some experts argue. If he’s able to do that effectively, a poorly attended rally months before the election will likely be mostly forgotten.

What’s next

Trump held a series of small campaign events in Arizona focused on border security on Tuesday. His campaign is planning upcoming rallies in Florida, Texas and North Carolina. Dates for those events have not yet been set.

Perspectives

The small crowd size suggests Trump’s base of devoted supporters is shrinking

“To explain how he might be able to win despite poor polling numbers — and amid national crises — he has posited that a ‘silent majority’ of Americans backs him. But the poor turnout suggests just the opposite — that enthusiasm for him is weaker than it appears.” — Jonathan Allen, NBC News

Crowd size is irrelevant

“Realistically, not a single vote will be flipped in or against Trump’s favor because some reporters managed to snap a picture of an only moderately-filled arena with a snarky caption.” — Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner

Trump’s campaign has very little room for error

“Once viewed inside the White House and Trump’s campaign as a reset button for a presidency beset by crises and self-inflicted wounds, Saturday evening’s campaign rally in Tulsa instead became plagued with pitfalls, a disappointing microcosm of the blindspots, denial and wishful thinking that have come to guide the president as he enters one of the most precarious moments of his first term.” — Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins, CNN

Trump still has ample time to shift the course of the race

“President Trump can meet this moment and win over the voters he needs in 2020 with a new message of change for people who’ve been left behind — equal opportunity for Americans of every race. Make America great again for all.” — Steve Hilton, Fox News

Trump’s speech lacked a clear reelection message

“The Trumpian vision, as outlined in Tulsa, is distinctively devoid of ideas.” — Ruth Marcus, Washington Post

The election will be decided by the state of the nation in November, not a rally in June

“Much could also change. The coronavirus crisis could be overcome. The economy could come roaring back. The enormous effort the Trump campaign is putting into attacking Biden could pay off.” — Niall Stanage, The Hill

There’s a lot of time before Election Day, but the rally was still a significant setback

“It’s not a good sign for a president who needed a shot in the arm as he faces slumping poll numbers. There are still four and a half months to go until Election Day, and a lot will change, but it’s hard to imagine that this is what his campaign was hoping for.” — Domenico Montanaro, NPR

Trump’s speech included some effective lines of attack on Biden

“His lines going after Biden were very effective, particularly on Biden being a tool of the radical left. But I’d like to see that focused message take up more space in the overall speech, because it will resonate with wobbly suburbanites.” — Republican political strategist Scott Jennings to Politico

TikTok users didn’t affect crowd size, but the prank is still a bad sign for Trump

“What’s important about the TikTok hanky-panky is how much fun the kids had doing it. They reveled in the chance to mess with the Trump campaign. This is fantastic news for Joe Biden and Democrats. One of the iron laws of politics is: Whoever is having fun is winning.” — David Plotz, Business Insider

There are many explanations for the small crowd

“It is tempting to find a larger message about Trump’s waning popularity with the GOP base in the meager turnout in Tulsa. … But it is hard to know whether the seats were empty because of virus fears, teenagers mischievously signing up on TikTok, or just the sensible calculation that there are better things to do on a Saturday night in Tulsa, even in the midst of a pandemic.” — Walter Shapiro, New Republic

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP Photo