Outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18, 2016. (Photo by Michael Heaney)
Outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 18. (Michael Heaney)

During the Republican National Convention, Cleveland officials put barricades up and prepared to handle mass arrests of protesters. News outlets suggested that protests might resemble those at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

However, contrary to expectations, the crowds were small (apart from a large presence of reporters). And perhaps more surprisingly, the demonstrators who were there were not necessarily focused on the Republican Party.

We know this because we actually surveyed the protesters. Here’s what we found.

How we surveyed the crowds

During the RNC, our team of 14 researchers covered all permitted rallies, marches and the official protest areas outside the convention. This included the March to End Poverty Now, several Stand Together Against Trump marches, rallies and demonstrations, and the pro-Trump America Unity Rally.

Our survey protocol was based on the Caught in the Act of Protest: Contextualizing Contestation project. The protocols designed by this project have been implemented at dozens of protests in Europe and South and Central America. In Cleveland, we used several techniques to sample participants in various forms of demonstrations, from stationary crowds at protest sites to marches down the streets.

For example, in marches, our team leaders would walk along with the crowd and count a certain number of rows back and then a certain number of individuals in to select the participant (the number dependent on the size of the march). They would then send an interviewer in to survey that participant. The team leader then counted back and over again to select the next respondent, who would be further down the march and further into the crowd. This process continued until the team leader had counted enough to span the width of the march. They would then continue counting rows further down but now count in going back across the columns of the march.

This created a zig-zag pattern in which all participants had an equal probability of participating. This method allowed us to capture a representative sample of those participating in public events outside the convention.

Trump was not the only reason people came to demonstrate.


As expected, many demonstrators (16 percent) came to support or oppose Donald Trump. But more (23 percent) said their primary concern was speaking out about racism or racial inequality.

A large group (part of the “Other” category) did not believe that a single issue could be highlighted and saw many issues as interconnected, with capitalism often cited as the root cause.

The Republican Party was not the focus.


Less than 5 percent of the participants said their goal was to change the Republican Party’s nomination or position on an issue. The majority said they were there to express solidarity, hoped to change public opinion on an issue, or felt obligated to speak out on an issue. This finding contradicts the conventional wisdom that people who demonstrate outside the convention would be targeting what goes on inside the convention.

Traveling far to protest.


Most surprising, a large proportion of participants had traveled to Cleveland specifically to protest. Only 33 percent of those surveyed were from the immediate Cleveland area, while 43 percent had traveled from outside Ohio.

The lack of support from Cleveland residents is probably part of the reason the protests were so small throughout the week. Without local support, larger crowds are more difficult to create and to sustain.

Shan-Jan Sarah Liu holds a dual PhD in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies from Penn State and will start teaching in the Department of Government at Smith College in the fall. Patricia Posey is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and is studying American politics. Kevin Reuning is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Penn State and is studying the relationship between political parties and social movements in the United States.

We would like to thank Pennsylvania State University, in particular the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and Lee Ann Banaszak, and the University of Pennsylvania, especially Daniel Gillion, for the financial support to make this research possible. We also would like to thank our surveyors for braving the crowds and not freaking out when we warned them that they might get tear-gassed: Parker Anderson, Mackenzie Cornell, Tyler Cousins, Aviva Doery, Nick Filingeri, McClain Fultz, Jessica Lee, Hannah Magoveny, Jacob McCall and Ilayda Orankoy.