What empty seats in Tulsa tell us about Trump 2020

In this edition: The scene from Tulsa, a new/old Trump ad strategy, and a poll that might have predicted this weekend’s problems with getting voters out for a rally.

Brought to you by the summer’s first irregular sunburn, this is The Trailer.

TULSA — The omens started early Saturday morning, before the gates to the “Great American Comeback” rally were opened. I got downtown later than I’d wanted to, making a detour to buy a poncho, after weather forecasts suggested a chance of rain. Shortly after 9 a.m., I started looking for parking, and two Tulsans who were charging $30 for a space politely said I might want to drive around before paying. 

“I thought we’d be full by now,” one of the sellers said, “based on the news.”

One minute later, I found free street parking and began walking to the BOK Center. Eight hours later, President Trump’s campaign was dramatically downscaling its first rally since March, striking a stage at an overflow section as a few dozen supporters mingled in a space designed for thousands. The rain never came. Neither did the expected audience.

Saturday’s rally in Tulsa was, on the campaign’s own terms, a debacle — a meticulously organized and well-protected event that left thousands of seats unfilled in an arena once sold out by Nickelback. The president himself had predicted a “record-setting crowd,” tweeting as the number of online ticket requests surged to Coachella proportions — 300,000, 600,000, 1 million.

“We’ve never had an empty seat, and we certainly won’t in Oklahoma,” Trump had said.

That hubris overshadowed what might have been landmark event, the first campaign rally of any kind since March and the start of the covid-19 pandemic. The audience was still larger than any Joe Biden had drawn before securing the Democratic nomination. And the hours of programming clarified how Trump would run against Biden — a message that partly relied on massive rallies.

“Would anybody sleep on the ground overnight waiting to see Joe Biden?” asked Lara Trump, a presidential daughter-in-law and key campaign surrogate, as thousands of supporters laughed and cheered.

There was plenty to learn and see on the ground. Here’s what mattered.

Covid-19 wasn’t a joke. The first speculation about how this rally might go centered on the risk of viral infections and the wisdom of gathering thousands of people inside when nearly every large indoor gathering in the country had been canceled. (The BOK Center has no other events planned until July 30.) Would the president’s most ardent supporters follow his lead and dismiss the threat of spreading the coronavirus?

The answer was mixed. The campaign itself took some precautions, though it did not enforce mask-wearing inside the arena. Entering the rally, attendees were offered face masks if they did not already have them and given quick temperature checks by staffers in blue protective ponchos. In Oklahoma, where restaurants and other businesses do not require masks, it was a substantial safety investment.

Rallygoers were also divided on how seriously to take the virus. A few of them made jokes about it, but plenty of them said that the threat of covid-19 was real and that they would take precautions. This shouldn’t have been a surprise: A Fox News poll released before the rally found that 68 percent of Republicans, and 61 percent of Trump supporters specifically, approved of wearing face masks. The president’s all-is-well rhetoric had shaped opinions among his most loyal supporters, but many of them appreciated the sentiment without embracing it.

David Edmundson, 61, came to the rally from Dallas to distribute 41,000 plastic face shields — to Trump supporters or anyone who wanted them. He’d given some to Black Lives Matter protesters, he said, but for fans of the president, he needed to hone his pitch. 

“It’ll keep the Democrats’ b.s. away from you!” Edmundson joked as he stood near the main entrance. “You have a lot of people who think the press is just trying to hype the virus up. So you’ve got to have a shtick to entice them.”

Security was overwhelming, and part of the show. Every presidential rally requires intense police protection, but the scene in Tulsa went far beyond that — a display of force that blanketed much of the city’s downtown. Hundreds of National Guard members, and many more police officers, stood by concrete barriers to guide supporters, guests and reporters to far-apart rally entrances.

They were welcomed as heroes. Trump supporters cheered and took photos with the security teams, sometimes offering them water or food, even as the security zone (which expanded during the day) forced them to circumnavigate long city blocks. In interviews, some attendees said they wanted to defend the police from the abuse they saw from protesters, while some went further, saying that police were protecting them from the sporadic clashes and property destruction they had heard about in other cities.

“There’s going to be more and more incidents of violence, when Black Lives Matter comes out,” said Don Carrillo, 62, who said Trump supporters would be ready if protesters picked a fight. “I don’t think these antifa or Black Lives Matter want to mess with a retired Marine. It’s going to end badly for them.” While there were moments of real tension, there was no violence on the streets of Tulsa; a Black Lives Matter march ended, without incident, with a party in the historically black Greenwood neighborhood.

The rhetoric about protesters was often contradictory, as Trump supporters whose merchandise mocked “snowflakes” and “safe spaces” fretted about Black Lives Matter protests kept away from them by barricades and armored vehicles. Some said they would leave before dark, citing reports of protests and looting they’d seen in other cities. After a protester was told to leave and then arrested inside the gates of the rally, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said he did not know the details but that violence (which had not occurred) would be handled by security.

“If there’s starting to be something where they are going to be damaging to other people’s property, that’s where our law enforcement is going to draw the line,” Stitt said. “We’ve had peaceful protest for the last two weeks in Oklahoma, and we haven’t seen what you’re seeing on television in other states.”

As it became clear that the turnout would miss expectations, the president and the Trump campaign blamed protesters. “We had some very bad people outside,” Trump said on the BOK Center’s stage. “They were doing some bad things.” Protesters had blocked only one of three gates for a short period of time, and it’s possible that inflating of the threat from protesters persuaded some supporters to stay home.

The base is being reined in, at least on television. When they approached the main gate of the rally, Trump supporters saw a billboard laying out the rules. Campaign buttons were prohibited, as were any signs; “Make America Great Again” signs would be provided, inside, by the campaign. Clothing with “expletive messages” was verboten.

That applied to a good deal of the merchandise outside. Several T-shirts on sale portrayed the president giving the middle finger with both hands, above vulgar text, the mildest of which was “suck it up, buttercup.” One T-shirt, sold away from the main entrance, made a crude sexual joke about Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi on the front, with a different crude slogan on the back. (The shirt was lazily interpolated from an anti-Clinton design used for the 2016 campaign.)

The campaign enforced its no-expletives rule, turning attendees away unless they covered up the curse words or put on new shirts. It went further than that: People wearing QAnon iconography, associating themselves with a complicated conspiracy theory, said they were turned away, too. QAnon merchandise was hard to miss outside the rally, but nothing obvious it made it inside; an Instagram post by Eric Trump, sharing a QAnon logo, was deleted before the presidential scion took the stage.

At times, the proceedings resembled a national party convention, with the campaign promoting mainstream projects like Women for Trump, and local candidates stopping by to meet voters. Miles Rahimi, a candidate in the 5th Congressional District 90 miles away, handed out brochures; campaigners for Rep. Roger Marshall, a Senate candidate in neighboring Kansas, brought merchandise to promote him. And Trump supporters were happy to oblige. 

“They told us: Your shirt is hilarious, but you can’t have it here,” said Therenda Reynolds, 41. She’d shown up with a homemade shirt reading “grab her by the …” followed by an unprintable slang term for female anatomy. Frustrated at the gate, she found tape to cover the offending word, returned and watched the president’s speech.

Joe Biden isn’t scaring the president’s base. Saturday’s rally was the first, by any candidate, since the president learned whom he’d be facing in November. While the coming of covid-19 overwhelmed traditional campaigning, Republicans have had three months to define Biden and drive up his negatives and to get supporters excited about keeping the 77-year-old Democrat out of the White House.

Saturday’s events demonstrated just how hard that’s been. In dozens of interviews, not a single supporter of Trump, who is 74, expressed worry that Biden might win the election. Vendors sold almost no merchandise that mentioned Biden specifically; the exceptions were the aforementioned crude shirt and another that portrayed a shocked woman with the slogan “Hidin’ from Biden: Free hugs and smells.” That was sold by Cindy McGowing, 63, and Bret Kuchar, 59, who said that anti-Biden merchandise was not flying off the table.

“He doesn’t stand out as a strong candidate,” McGowing said.

“I think that’s because people know he doesn’t have a chance,” Kuchar said.

Polling has found Biden with a consistent lead, one that’s grown since the start of this month. But the Trump campaign’s difficulty in defining Biden emerged again and again in rally programming, which included hours of live panels from a stage in the overflow space. (As they walked into the arena, Trump supporters could hear and see the programming, too.) Biden became, alternately, “Basement Biden,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Jim Crow Joe,” and in the words of Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson, “Jim Crow Confused Joe.” 

Biden was accused of wanting to “fundamentally change America” while also “taking us back” to the pre-Trump era; Biden was excoriated for passing the 1994 crime bill, while being accused of wanting to “defund the police.” (Biden opposes defunding the police and has proposed a boost in community policing funds.)

There was a theme connecting the disparate attacks: Biden’s age. Trump supporters and surrogates alike suggested that Biden was mentally checked out, with Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is dating Donald Trump Jr. and chairing a fundraising arm of the Trump campaign, suggesting his family was cruel to let him run when he wasn’t up for it. If elected, Trump supporters said, Biden would be manipulated by the far-left forces he had defeated in the Democratic primary, negating any of his campaign trail promises.

“He’s a puppet,” said Daniel Pearl, 46, whose rally shirt portrayed Bill and Hillary Clinton as mobsters. “Do you honestly think that if he won, he’d be running things?”

Democrats have also mocked the president over some of his behavior; the president spent 12 minutes Saturday defending himself from the idea that he had shown weakness by walking slowly down a ramp at West Point’s commencement. 

During the outdoor programming and the rally, Trump campaign surrogates repeatedly pointed to a turning point for Biden: the televised debates. When forced to face the president, they said, Biden would be revealed as unfocused and unready for the presidency. Left unsaid: that supporters of Bernie Sanders had said the same thing before Biden’s only one-on-one debate with him.

“It’s going to be an absolute bloodbath, Eric Trump said from the BOK Center stage. “Sleepy Joe doesn’t stand a chance.” 

At that moment, the overflow stage where the president had been expected to speak was being dismantled, a symbol of what can happen when expectations fall short of reality.

Reading list

“Trump gives grievance-filled speech to unfilled arena as protests stay mostly peaceful,” by Robert Klemko, Arelis R. Hernández, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Alex Horton

The scene from Tulsa, protests, rally speech and all.

“Trump allies see a mounting threat: Biden’s rising evangelical support,” by Gabby Orr

Are the Democrats’s strong numbers with traditional conservative voters for real?

“Biden outraised Trump in May, but Trump maintains significant war chest,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy

A fundraising milestone that still leaves Biden trailing.

“In Kentucky, racial justice movement transforms quest to oust McConnell,” by Jonathan Martin

How the moment turned Charles Booker into a contender.

“Kentucky braces for possible voting problems in Tuesday’s primary amid signs of high turnout,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee

A looming disaster in Kentucky’s biggest city.

“Longtime congressman from N.Y. tries to avoid an AOC-style upset,” by David Weigel

Eliot L. Engel on the ropes.

“TikTok teens and K-Pop stans say they sank Trump rally,” by Taylor Lorenz, Kellen Browning and Sheera Frenkel

He would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

Ad watch

Donald Trump, “Fortitude.” The president’s campaign has never been subtle in attacking Joe Biden’s age and verbal miscues, with the president frequently suggesting that Biden doesn’t even know what’s happening anymore. This spot, promoted heavily by the campaign all weekend, is even blunter, emphasizing that Biden is “77 years old” (three years older than the president) and playing two clips of him trailing off to imply that he’s “slipping” and “diminished.” But a third clip is taken out of contest. Captured from a Biden speech to the National Action Network, a black civil rights group led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, it had Biden saying that sometimes “I wake up and I think it’s 1920.” That’s not a gaffe, but a line Biden often used to say that the president has taken the country back to a time before years of racial progress.

Andrew Romanoff, “Clean.” The self-styled progressive challenger in Colorado’s Senate race has taken one of the ads that made former governor John Hickenlooper famous and turned it around on him. The ad, largely recycled here, showed Hickenlooper taking a shower, to demonstrate how sick he was of negative ads, and why he didn’t run any himself. Romanoff uses that to hit the candidate over his ethics fine, the product of a two-year investigation into his travel as governor. The ongoing question in the primary, which ends June 30, is whether Hickenlooper’s reputation as an honest, if awkward, candidate survived the scandal.

Tracey Mann, “Conservative Fighter.” Images of civil unrest are appearing more frequently in campaign advertising, even if the ads themselves don’t focus on them. “America’s cities are under attack,” a narrator begins in this spot for a Republican running in Kansas’s 1st District. The largest and most rural part of the state, “The Big First” has no major metropolitan areas, and its biggest city, Salina, has fewer than 50,000 residents. Something to watch: if warnings of civil unrest play better in rural districts, or suburban ones.

Josh Gapp, “Gapp.” When candidates have unusual or tough-to-pronounce names, they sometimes run ads that joke about them. This spot inverts the concept, with Republican candidate Josh Gapp’s name, pronounced just like it looks, used for a rhyming joke, before a hard turn into his promise to “remove the cancer of political correctness.”

Poll watch

Is a good idea for candidates to hold large political events and rallies right now? (Fox News, 1,343 registered voters)

Good idea: 23%
Bad idea: 59% 
Depends on social distancing: 16%

Before the president and a Republican entourage arrived in Tulsa, Fox’s pollsters found deep skepticism toward the idea of pandemic-era rallies, especially ones that wouldn’t require the same sort of rules now observed by most partly-open venues. Just two subgroups of voters favor the idea, and only with a plurality: 45 percent of voters who approve of the president and 42 percent of Republicans. Opposition was widespread among everybody else contacted, even white voters who lack college degrees. While that’s a strong demographic for the president, just 25 percent favored the idea of rallies right now, and just 18 percent said it depended on social distancing.

Debate season

The Trump campaign’s hardball approach to debate negotiations picked up this week with an unusual ask: a fourth debate with Joe Biden, to be held as soon as possible.

“We want fair debates. We want them sooner and we want a bigger schedule, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a Thursday statement about the campaign’s updated demands. As many Americans as possible need to see the stark differences between the accomplishments and leadership of President Trump and the failed record and sleepiness of Joe Biden.”

What made this unusual? In the past, presidents have tried to limit the number of debates in which they appear. While general election debates as we know them began in 1960, no incumbent president agreed to debate his opponent until 1976, when Gerald Ford agreed to face Jimmy Carter. Like Trump, Ford was lagging his Democratic opponent in public polls; as his then-chief of staff Richard B. Cheney recalled years later, Ford challenged Carter to televised debates because without them, he was losing.

“We were 30 points behind, and we had to try something,” Cheney has explained.

Carter and Ford met three times, a frequency that would not be not be repeated until 1992, when George H.W. Bush — you may detect a pattern here — was lagging in the polls. Biden’s campaign nodded at the history of these challenges Thursday, when it rejected the four-debate pitch.

“Six months after announcing he did not want to debate, Donald Trump — now trailing in the polls — wants to change the subject from his failed leadership,” said deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield.

More than either Ford or Bush, the Trump campaign’s push grows from the assumption that Biden would lose any debate with the president. That’s a serious gamble just three months ago, Bernie Sanders’s allies overrated the advantage the senator from Vermont would have in a debate with Biden. Their sole one-on-one debate, held in Washington, ended up helping Biden, in part because the former vice president slid past Sanders’s attacks on Biden’s old and abandoned stances, like a willingness to reduce entitlement spending, and in part because the expectations were so incredibly low for the then-frontrunner. 

Candidate tracker

Donald Trump did not get the headlines his campaign had prepared for out of Tulsa. In the hours after the rally’s overflow stage was disassembled, the Trump campaign suggested that protesters had prevented some supporters from attending the rally (a claim at odds with what reporters saw) and mocked the media for reports about TikTok users signing up for tickets with the intent of skipping the rally.

“It makes us wonder why we bother credentialing media for events when they don’t do their full jobs as professionals,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale wrote in a statement Sunday morning. While the campaign explained that fake sign-ups were already taken out of the campaign’s planning, the president and surrogates had frequently cited the “1 million” ticket number, one we now know was inflated, to describe the demand for the rally.

The campaign has attacked Joe Biden for not holding, or even trying to hold, large events, and derided last week’s speech in Darby, Pa., by suggesting that photos of empty seats revealed a lack of interest. (Only press and local business leaders, spaced apart, had been invited.) Biden stayed off the trail all weekend, publishing a piece in Essence to reiterate his racial justice agenda.

“The plan is built around closing six pernicious racial gaps: the wealth and income gap, the education opportunity gap, the health care gap, the justice gap, the voting rights gap, and the environmental gap,” Biden wrote.

Veep watch

Amy Klobuchar‘s chances at the vice presidency reportedly waned after the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd events that brought fresh scrutiny of her record as a prosecutor in Minneapolis, and of her low black support as a candidate for president. On Thursday night, in an MSNBC interview, the senator from Minnesota took herself out of consideration for the Democratic ticket.

“This is a moment to put a woman of color on that ticket,” Klobuchar added. “There are so many incredibly qualified women. But if you want to heal this nation right now — my party, yes, but our nation — this is sure a hell of way to do it.”

Reception for that interview was mixed; Klobuchar had ruled herself out in a way that warned Biden against picking a running mate like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“Any decision is up to the vice president, Warren said in a weekend interview when asked about Klobuchar’s comment. Every woman being considered is extremely qualified and would be an asset.

The black women being vetted for Joe Biden’s ticket were very visible over the weekend, with the Juneteenth holiday being recognized by the first time by some states, cities and businesses. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she would be ready to serve in the nation’s top job if it came to that.

“There’s been no handbook for so many mayors and so many governors across this country dealing with covid-19 and now with the demonstrations that we are seeing around the country,” Lance Bottoms said. “I think that there has been a response to crisis, that not many people have been tested in this way, in the same way that leaders across this country have been over the past several months.”

Sen. Kamala D. Harris, meanwhile, led on the Senate Democrats’ effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday; Stacey Abrams celebrated a deal with Amazon for a voting rights documentary that she co-produced. (Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, is the owner of The Washington Post.)

Countdown

… two days until primaries in Kentucky, New York and Virginia
… nine days until primaries in Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah
… 18 days until the Green Party meets to pick a presidential ticket
… 57 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 65 days until the Republican National Convention
… 135 days until the general election

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