Trump campaign backs off in-person events as coronavirus cases pick up

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

Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

With coronavirus cases on the rise, the Trump campaign is backing off its plans to resume an aggressive schedule of in-person rallies and meetups.

The next planned event on the horizon, a rally in Alabama that was never formally announced but expected to take place this month, has been scrapped, officials familiar with the matter told NBC News on Wednesday. The Trump campaign had been exploring venues for a gathering in Alabama in the coming weeks, NBC reported.

That potential rally, first reported by CNN, was planned to take place on the eve of the Republican Senate primary election between former football coach Tommy Tuberville, whom President Donald Trump endorsed, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a frequent target of Trump’s ire.

The decision to scrap plans for the event was partially due to concerns over the rise in Covid-19 cases, according to NBC.

Several states, mostly in the American South and West, are experiencing a surge in cases, and many governors halting their plans to reopen their economies. The Trump campaign has been widely criticized for its decision to forge ahead with a handful of recent public events despite the jump in infections.

“No rally has been announced and we never comment on rally planning,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told CNBC when asked about the reported Alabama event. “The campaign is constantly gathering information and investigating rally dates and locations.”

The Tuberville campaign did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Trump’s lengthy, freewheeling speeches to packed arenas of enthusiastic supporters were the trademark feature of his successful 2016 campaign. He continued to hold them throughout much of his first term in office. But the coronavirus pandemic forced the Trump campaign in March to stop holding rallies for more than three months, depriving Trump of one of the most-used weapons in his campaign arsenal.

During that interlude, former Vice President Joe Biden emerged from the Democratic primary fight to become the party’s presumptive nominee. Biden, who has rarely held in-person campaign events since the pandemic gripped the nation’s attention, now holds a commanding lead over Trump in the polls. 

Trump has been eager to see the country reopen and to return to the campaign trail. Ahead of his rally late last month – his first such event since early March – Trump tweeted, “My campaign hasn’t started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!”

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

Win McNamee | Getty Images

That event in Tulsa was plagued with controversy, as local health officials warned the president that holding a large in-person gathering could exacerbate the public health crisis.

The rally drew significant attention from the media, as well as from groups of anti-Trump protesters and activists demonstrating against policy brutality and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death. But it failed to draw enough of Trump’s own supporters to fill the 19,000-capacity BOK Center in Tulsa, an outcome that made Trump “furious.”

Three days later, Trump held another rally-style campaign event, this one packed with student supporters, in a megachurch in Arizona.

The event at Phoenix’s Dream City Church, which can reportedly hold about 3,000 people, was roundly criticized for abandoning social distancing practices and not requiring attendees to wear masks, even as Arizona experienced a spike in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Vice President Mike Pence, who flew out to Arizona on Wednesday to discuss pandemic response efforts with the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has defended the campaign rallies on constitutional grounds.

“The freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, is enshrined in the constitution of the United States,” Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, said at a briefing last week. “And we have an election coming up this fall.”

More than 84,000 cases and 1,720 deaths from Covid-19 have been confirmed in Arizona, according to the state’s health services department. 

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is moving hundreds of smaller gatherings and organizing events into the virtual sphere. All of the “featured events” on the campaign’s website are being held online or by phone, and a slew of upcoming events around the country are being converted into “virtual seminars,” the site says.

The decision to halt rallies, even temporarily, poses several political risks to the Trump campaign. 

The first risk is that rallies, and their thousands of adoring fans, have long served as an emotional outlet for Trump, who chafes under the pressures and demands of official Washington. Rallies help to energize the president, who is 74, and for years people close to him have noted that they focus his attention and sharpen his political messaging. 

The rallies also serve a very specific purpose for another side of the Trump campaign: its digital outreach operation. 

Led by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital operation is widely viewed as the most effective and far-reaching in modern politics. It was critical to his victory in 2016, and it may be even more critical in 2020, now that Trump faces long odds and trails Biden by double digits in most national polls.

But like so much else in 2020, the coronavirus is reshaping this, too. 

A successful rally can add tens of thousands of people’s contact information to the Trump campaign’s database. “Right now, in big cities, we’re walking out with up to 100,000 new phone numbers,” Parscale boasted last fall. “That’s 100,000 people I can send a text message to on Election Day.”

“They use the rallies to collect data,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican political donor and Trump supporter. “I’ve seen internal numbers indicating that at any given rally, they’ve got 80% Republicans attending, and 20% either Democrats or uncommitted voters. And it’s that 20% slice they target, using Facebook to build datasets of their friends and their social networks.”

“That’s a huge part of how they grow their footprint, and [Brad] Parscale does this really well,” Eberhart said. “On a granular level, the rallies are really a data mining operation.” 

This year, “they were counting on [rallies] being a juggernaut for Trump and a huge advantage over Biden,” said Eberhart, largely because of the data and outreach opportunities that rallies create. “But the coronavirus has created a new digital landscape.”

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