WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s paltry crowd for his weekend campaign rally in Oklahoma raises new questions about politics in the age of the coronavirus: Maybe pandemic-scarred Americans just aren’t ready to risk exposure for close-up engagement in the 2020 presidential election.
Only about a third of seats in the 19,000-seat BOK Center were filled for the rally, despite boasts by Trump and his campaign team that they had received more than 1 million ticket requests.
With all 50 states well into reopening their economies, Americans are now creating their own individual risk budgets and calculating what sort of activities are worth hazarding when coronavirus infections are still surging in some areas of the country.
At a moment when many Americans are still weighing the risks and rewards of mundane activities like a meal at a restaurant, a trip to the grocery store or a visit to the salon, the idea of attending a campaign rally — more than four months before Election Day — may seem like an extraneous, if not perilous, activity to some.
“There was the presumption that the risk calculus was being made very, very differently by Trump supporters and was broad enough to fill up that arena,” said Matt Bennett, executive vice president at the center-left Washington think-tank, the Third Way. “It just turns out it wasn’t.”
Trump and his campaign attributed the low attendance to worries about potential violence and media hype about the dangers of the virus. Left-leaning pranksters claimed they were behind many of the more than 1 million requests for tickets, giving Trump’s campaign the false sense that the event was going to have a massive overflow crowd.
But the relatively sparse crowd suggests that even in a rock-ribbed Republican state like Oklahoma, Americans of all political stripes still are cautious as they emerge from lockdown.
According to a June poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they’re very worried about themselves or someone in their family being infected with the virus.
But in total, about half of Republicans along with about 8 in 10 Democrats say they’re at least somewhat worried. And about 6 in 10 Americans still favor limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted Monday that the president was pleased with the energy of the crowd and stressed that more than 7 million viewers tuned into Fox News to watch. But privately, advisers to the president said he was furious about the low turnout.
The Trump campaign is now conducting a review of what went wrong in Tulsa. Presidential advisers privately expressed some regret at touting the numbers of ticket requests in advance but believed, more than anything, that Trump supporters were scared away by the potential for protests and violence in the area, according to three campaign and White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations publicly.
But they also allowed that they may have overestimated the willingness of even die-hard Trump supporters to attend a largely mask-less, non-socially distanced indoor rally along with thousands of others, the officials said. In particular, campaign staffers noticed a lack of senior citizens and families with young children at the Tulsa rally, and believe they were scared off by fears of the virus as well as possible violence.
Campaign officials stressed that rallies would remain a staple of the president’s reelection strategy but acknowledged the format may need to change slightly in certain states. Discussions were under way about having them in more modest venues or outdoors, perhaps in airplane hangers and amphitheaters, or in smaller cities away from likely protesters.
More steps are likely to be put in place to safeguard the health of both rallygoers and staffers, the officials said. Six campaign staffers and two members of the Secret Service working in advance of the Oklahoma rally tested positive for COVID-19. Contact tracing for those people was underway, the officials said.
Still, campaign officials said Trump’s ability to draw thousands of supporters out during a pandemic sets up a favorable contrast with the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and Trump supporter, said the president did “pretty well in pulling in a crowd” considering where Americans’ comfort level is at the moment. He said campaign officials — including Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale — “completely failed managing expectations 101.”
“I think there is still a lot of uncertainty out there around how reopening is going to go,” Eberhart said. “This was the first event after several months; I expect the crowds and enthusiasm will return.”
In interviews, many of those who attended the Tulsa rally told Associated Press reporters that they had little or no concerns about risking infection. Many said they had put their fate in the hands of God, while others said they believed the media were sensationalizing the risks of infection.
But some rally attendees acknowledged they had a measure of fear of being infected, and a smattering wore face masks.
“I want to protect my parents and grandparents,” said Chris Rasmusser, 40, a Tulsa attendee who said he wore a mask for part of the time while he was lined up to get into the arena.
Trump and his campaign supporters have belittled Biden as hiding out in his basement since the pandemic upended American life in March. Since then, Biden has relied heavily on virtual town halls and fundraisers from his home in Delaware.
Biden's advisers have pushed back against the criticism -- and hand-wringing from some fellow Democrats -- by making the case that it’s too dangerous at the moment to engage Americans in traditional campaigning.
Voters don’t care about where he’s filming from, Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said in an interview last month. “What they care about is what he’s saying and how we connect with them.”
Madhani reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Emily Swanson in Washington and Sean Murphy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, contributed reporting.