REOPEN OUR COUNTRY!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2020
There are multiple reasons Trump wants a return to normal. The most obvious is that he saw the strength of the economy as a central component to his reelection bid. A bad economy has generally been a prohibitive factor for presidents seeking reelection, something Trump is quite aware of. It’s also the case that protests against social distancing restrictions overlap broadly with demonstrations of support for his presidency, so Trump’s loathe to offer any contradiction to the demonstrators’ goals. As is often the case, support for his presidency is a remarkable salve against complaints Trump might have.
Over the weekend, Trump’s son Eric Trump offered a variant on the idea that reopening the economy would aid Trump’s reelection: keeping economic activity closed was designed to hurt it. He was speaking to Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro.
“They think they’re taking away Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time, right?” Eric Trump said. “So they will. And you watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3rd. And guess what? After November 3rd, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able reopen.”
“So make no mistake: To a lot of them, Jeanine, to a lot of them, this is a very cognizant strategy that they’re trying to employ,” he added.
The irony here is that this is precisely what Donald Trump did in 2014 and 2018. Trump then used crises, real and imagined, to argue against electing Democrats to office. In 2014, it was the scourge of Ebola, an infectious disease that, Trump then said, demanded a much more alarmist position from President Barack Obama. In 2018, it was immigrants again, coming to the border in staggering caravans, necessitating — Trump claimed — the deployment of troops to the border. Both alarmist, both fading immediately after the elections were over.
Nonetheless, we probably shouldn’t take Eric Trump’s assertions too seriously as a theory. He wants these restrictions, which many Trump supporters don’t like, to be seen not as an outgrowth of his father’s strategy but, instead, as a way of reinforcing Trump’s assertions about being unfairly targeted by nebulous opposing forces. The “they” to which he refers bounces from the campaign of former vice president Joe Biden to the media to Democratic governors in general. Who it is doesn’t matter; what matters is that it’s them doing it, not us.
There are two questions worth considering. Does limiting Trump’s rallies actually hurt him politically? And is it politically advantageous to Democrats to keep restrictions in place?
One of the confounding aspects of the 2016 election was that the closeness of the results make it easy to attribute Trump's victory to any number of things. He won Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan by about 78,000 votes combined, enough to give him a victory in the electoral college. Did the rallies make the difference?
In the last eight days of the race, he held five rallies in those three states — but also held six rallies in New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada and Virginia, states he didn’t win. It’s clear the rallies gave him an advantage in the Republican primary that year, demonstrating a sense of momentum and support. But in the general, that effect was murkier. He liked to compare the size of his crowds with Hillary Clinton’s, but then Clinton went and beat him by 2.8 million votes.
In 2018, Trump again rallied on behalf of Republican candidates in the midterm elections. The White House tried to frame that effort as a demonstration of Trump’s political strength, but the actual results of his appearances were mixed. In House districts where he held rallies that cycle, turnout was uniformly down from 2016, and in each place but one the electorate was more favorable to Democratic candidates than it had been to him. Those rallies were all for candidates other than Trump himself, of course, making this a somewhat apples-to-oranges comparison, but those results certainly don’t prove his rallies are an obvious and immediate political boon.
What's indisputable is that Trump himself loves the rallies. He enjoys the rock-star energy levels and nearly unwavering support the audiences provide. His campaign's chief operating officer told the Wall Street Journal last year that the rallies “are the driving force behind this movement.” No rallies, no #MAGA movement. No #MAGA movement, no reelection — or so Trump's campaign apparently believes. No wonder they want the rallies back.
Then we get to the flip side. No pro-Trump rallies, sure, but also no pro-Democratic ones. Trump often derided Hillary Clinton for relying on Obama and celebrities to gin up turnout, but with restrictions in place, Obama and pop stars can’t rally for Biden either.
Of more concern to Democrats, no doubt, is that their long-standing advantage in turning voters out would be curtailed by social distancing measures. Republicans tend to vote more reliably than Democrats, so Democratic campaigns and their allies have built robust systems for encouraging their voters to actually cast a ballot. The most reliable way to do so is to knock on someone’s door or drive them to the polls, activities that simply can’t happen effectively in a world with broad virus containment measures in place.
The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany and Brent Griffiths reported Monday that Democratic activists are “worried about record low turnout” in the coronavirus era. That’s not just about turnout: Elections in which in-person voting is limited means many voters will have to learn new processes for casting a ballot.
This question of ensuring the ability and ease of voting has been percolating for weeks among Democratic lawmakers, and not only in the context of the presidential race. The House coronavirus bill passed last week included broad expansions for the use of mail-in ballots — something President Trump has expressed opposition to in often misleading terms.
In his interview Saturday, Eric Trump also talked about that provision of the House bill, dubbed the Heroes Act by Democratic lawmakers.
“You have these Democrats that come up with these names for these various bills, right? You have the Heroes Act,” he said. “It sounds beautiful until you start discovering some of the garbage that they put in it, like every state in the country has mail-in voting. I mean, it’s really, really disingenuous. The Democrats are trying to milk this for everything they can, and it’s sad."
In his next answer, he insisted the Democrats were supporting closures to keep his father from holding campaign rallies. His father’s administration, meanwhile, continues to support them to limit the spread of the virus.