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What do you do when Election Day is a week away, you’re down in the polls and more than 60 million votes have already been cast?
If you’re President Trump, you hit the road. And you hit it big time, mounting rally stages and treating big raucous crowds to big servings of red meat.
No one doubts Trump can be compelling on camera for adoring crowds, a spectacle that plays to his strengths as a world class salesman and contemporary media master. Here, as opposed to in debates and interviews, he can declare victory over the virus and promote any sort of conspiracy theory he likes.
So get ready for a full week of speeches that run 60 to 90 minutes with brash pronouncements about rigged elections, fake polls, corrupt opponents and news media prejudice. Much of the president’s time will be devoted to recalling the glories of 2016, when a flurry of such late rallies seemed to work wonders.
As the outsider challenging the establishment four years ago, Trump crisscrossed the country at a frantic pace, holding by one count 26 rallies across 11 states in the final six days of the campaign — including 10 in eight states in the final 48 hours.
While he did not carry every state he hit on that frantic tour, Trump came remarkably close even in places where he lost, such as Nevada, New Hampshire and Minnesota. All those states have been back on his itinerary this month, and he was in New Hampshire on Sunday.
Of course, the grand trophies were the states Trump did reap from his whirlwind tour, including the breathtakingly close ones: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Florida margin was relatively fat at 1%. The other three prizes were taken by a combined total of about 77,000 votes. Given the winner-take-all rules of the Electoral College, those razor-thin wins were enough to make him president — even though he lost the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes.
There have been voices, even within the Trump campaign, cautioning that these events could be “superspreaders” for coronavirus infection. There have already been cases traced to Trump rallies. Moreover, some argue, the president should be seen at work in Washington, battling the pandemic, pushing a COVID-19-and-economy relief bill now hung up in Congress, or addressing other issues.
But those voices of dissent are being drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
Even Vice President Pence, a less dynamic stage performer, is traveling extensively and pitching to crowds. Over the weekend, some Pence staffers, including his chief of staff, tested positive for the coronavirus and went into quarantine. But Pence is back out on the trail, providing his echo of the president and The Strategy.
Like other things in the Trump era that may seem unprecedented, these late forays into the country in search of votes actually have quite a history.
Before Twitter: torchlight and trains
Torchlight parades on the eve of Election Day caught on in the burgeoning cities of the 1850s and were first seen as affecting the outcome in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. For a time, they were a standard way of turning up the heat and generating voter turnout at the end of a long campaign year.
Perhaps the most famous late-inning rally on the road was Harry Truman’s legendary “whistle-stop tour” in 1948. Truman had become president when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945 but utterly lacked the national stature of his predecessor. There were few polls in that era, but the incumbent was trailing badly and widely expected to lose.
He refused to go quietly, however, launching a 30,000-mile odyssey that lasted weeks and took him literally from coast to coast. People gathered at every stop where the train blew its whistle, sometimes in modest numbers but also in notable crowds that spilled across the tracks. Truman later estimated he had addressed 15 million people, and he wound up winning the popular vote along with a generous majority of the Electoral College.
Since then, incumbent presidents have more typically been well ahead at reelection time. So they have largely relied on the “Rose Garden strategy,” fortified by the White House, projecting stability and confidence.
The late, frantic campaign dash has been associated more often with challengers to incumbents, usually in the face of near-certain defeat.
Republican Bob Dole tried the tactic in 1996, jetting across 15 states in a final, 96-hour lunge for the brass ring. Dole, then 73 (now 97), believed this show of indomitable determination would change minds and alter the outcome, but the longtime senator fell far short of dislodging President Bill Clinton, then the White House incumbent.
Even the star-crossed Democrat Walter Mondale pumped some life into his longshot challenge to President Ronald Reagan in 1984 when he drew massive and supportive crowds to late rallies in Baltimore, Boston and New York. On Nov. 1, Mondale, the former vice president, and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro (the first woman on either major party’s ticket) drew an immense audience in the Garment District of New York City. Police estimated the throng at 100,000. A day earlier, one wire service reporter had described the receptive crowd on Baltimore’s waterfront as “so rousing it would have suggested he was the front-runner if the polls did not show otherwise.”
But the polls did show otherwise, and Reagan carried every state in the union but Minnesota, Mondale’s home. On the night before Election Day, Reagan detoured Air Force One from a planned stop in Wisconsin to visit the Twin Cities instead, hoping a late rally there would capture that one last state. It very nearly did.
Target small cities and towns
Trump has also been holding rallies in Minnesota and in other states he nearly won in 2016. But unlike Reagan and most candidates since, Trump this year tends to avoid the big metro areas.
In something of an echo of Truman’s whistle-stopping, Trump heads for Bemidji, Minn., in the vast northern reaches of the state. In Pennsylvania, he goes to smaller airport cities between the metro centers and in Florida the targets are places such as Ocala and Pensacola.
The venues allow the campaign to hold rallies outdoor amid the pandemic, but this is also how the Trump team says to Middle America: We care about you. And even if no other part of the president’s message truly resonates, his mere presence in these places makes a powerful impression — even for those who never thought of coming out for the rally.
In this age of social media and communications overload, does a late blitzkrieg still make a difference? One question is whether such rallies merely showcase the hardcore without reaching any new or persuadable voters. After all, few of those visible at a Trump rally seem exactly undecided.
But a Trump campaign official told a reporter for Politico this month that a survey at one rally in Prescott, Ariz., (far from the metro areas of Phoenix and Tucson) found nearly one-fourth of the attendees did not consider themselves Republicans. Moreover, more than a third of them said they had not voted at all in 2016. If these individuals are as enthusiastic about Trump as most at the rally appeared to be, they are the new blood the president needs to win a second term.
Some Americans approach voting for president as a decision as momentous as choosing a college to attend or a place to live. For others, the commitment is more akin to a car purchase or a vacation package. Still others seem to make their choice much as they would settle on a movie or a restaurant, often at the last moment.
In any of these decision-making modes, there is both thought and emotion. But the emotional element may well prevail most often in the third group — those who, deciding later, may not weigh the permanence of the consequences.
For this group, at least, the energy or the media coverage generated by these 11th-hour events may well tip the balance. Or, at at minimum, it’s easy to see why candidates can come to think so.