The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

End of an era? Trump says he won’t hold rallies with empty seats.

A supporter sitting in the upper section of seating watches as President Trump speaks during a campaign rally on June 20 in Tulsa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Trump rally may be a thing of the past.

At the least, the signature stew of tribal politics, showmanship, insults, outrage, humor and hero worship that propelled Donald Trump’s improbable victory four years ago and that has punctuated his presidency with the trappings of a perpetual campaign, is on a break.

Trump appeared to declare the end of the rally era Tuesday. He said the events — the success of which he has always measured by the size of the crowd and the “ratings” — are a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. Or more exactly, of the dispiriting optics that proper social distancing would mandate.

“You can’t have empty seats,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Sports Radio. “You know, if I had five empty seats — for instance, they said, ‘Would I do a rally, sir?’ The reason I won’t do them [is] because, ‘You can have one seat and then seven around that seat, sir, have to be empty.’ ”

“Oh, that’ll look great,” he added sarcastically. “You know, you have one person and everything’s empty around them. You can’t do that.”

Speaking later with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump was more succinct.

“I’d love to do the rallies. We can’t because of the covid. You know, you can’t have people sitting next to each other.”

With Trump trailing in national polls fewer than 90 days before the election and the coronavirus shutting down many schools and businesses through the fall, the future of the campaign rally is as uncertain as Trump’s odds for reelection.

He sounded a little wistful as he said that he is drawing big crowds of roadside supporters when he travels on official White House business.

“I just got back from Texas, Ohio and Florida. We’ve got all law enforcement awards, everything. We got the endorsement from all of them,” Trump told Hewitt. “But I just got back, and they’re the largest crowds on the highway I’ve ever seen.”

Before rally, campaign workers removed social distancing stickers

In June, Trump held a thinly attended campaign rally in Tulsa despite warnings from health officials about the increase in coronavirus cases in Oklahoma. A number of campaign staff members at the rally site tested positive and the president was livid that the news became public, according to people familiar with his reaction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions.

Although Trump did not say so, the empty-seats problem is also partly a function of reluctance on the part of some his supporters to expose themselves to potential infection.

A planned July rally in New Hampshire was scrapped out of what the Trump campaign said was caution over an approaching storm, although forecasts suggested there was little risk. The day dawned sunny and warm, and the state Democratic Party said the weather amounted to a spurious cover story.

The campaign said the event was merely postponed, but it has not been rescheduled. Trump himself appeared to give away the game last week, when he was asked about the wisdom of his decision to go ahead with the Oklahoma rally in the midst of a pandemic.

“I had a great crowd in New Hampshire, and I canceled it for the same reason,” Trump said during an interview with Axios.

The campaign has not advertised any future rallies or other large, in-person events. Vice President Pence led two smaller events Tuesday in Arizona that were aimed at Mormons and law enforcement personnel.

Public health official says Trump rally and protests likely led to surge in cases

Spokesmen for the campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether rallies are off-limits through Election Day.

Trump will not give a traditional address to accept the Republican nomination later this month. Instead, the president said that what campaign operatives call the “balloon speech” for the ritual spectacle of balloons dropping onto the convention stage will be held either at the White House or outdoors at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

“You could” have a live audience, Trump told reporters Monday. “You have plenty of room at both locations.”

An email to campaign supporters Tuesday invited them to vote for one location or the other but said nothing about attending the event.

Trump’s campaign aides have long viewed the president’s political rallies as the centerpiece of their strategy for winning a second term.

In December, senior campaign aides told reporters that the rallies had helped the operation identify hundreds of thousands of new voters since 2017, data that they planned to augment with dozens of additional events through Election Day.

One official said at the time that the campaign had planned to turn the rallies into “five-day experiences,” with Pence and other campaign surrogates coming to town days before Trump arrived to gin up enthusiasm.

The president was expecting to be holding multiple rallies weekly by this point in the race, and aides have said the pandemic has forced them to retool.

The campaign released a mobile app earlier this year encouraging supporters sign up as virtual volunteers in exchange for an opportunity to receive signed memorabilia and benefits. Originally, the app was supposed to work hand-in-hand with the campaign rallies, with supporters encouraged to download it on their phones while waiting in line and complete various tasks that would earn them an opportunity to receive priority seating and other perks during rallies.

Rallies are important tools for any candidate or president, but especially so for Trump, said Katelyn DeBaun-Fee, who has studied Trump and political communication for doctoral research at Kent State University in Ohio.

“Trump uses rallies to fire up dedicated voters. I believe his concern is that, if he is unable to hold rallies, he won’t be able to get that direct face time with his voting base; without this, a decent portion of his base may become stagnant and apathetic,” she said. “It is pretty clear that public opinion and turnout data demonstrates that apathetic voters don’t go to the polls.”

Since the Oklahoma debacle, official trips such as those Trump listed Tuesday to Texas, Ohio and Florida have become a stand-in for the big rallies he loves. His official travel schedule leans heavily toward states that are battlegrounds in the November election, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, in addition to Texas, Ohio and Florida.

Trump has been trying to re-create the feeling of rallies by having groups of supporters meet him on the tarmac at his official events. Recent venues in Florida and Ohio have featured a presidential podium and a loudspeaker blasting selections from the standard rally playlist, including “YMCA” by the Village People.

Many of Trump’s appearances these days blur the line between official duties and campaigning, as with a raucous event with young evangelical supporters in Phoenix in late June. The event mimicked a Trump rally down to the playlist and warm-up speeches by campaign surrogates Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle.

Although Arizona’s coronavirus outbreak was spiking, almost no one in the crowd wore face masksas the president ran through rally staples such as mocking “Sleepy Joe” Biden and enlisting the crowd to jeer at reporters.

A speech last week in Ohio quickly mixed election politics into the script about strengthening American manufacturing.

“The Obama-Biden administration was laughed at. They were a joke. And they were perfectly happy to let China win, your jobs disappear, and your factory to close,” Trump said at a Whirlpool washing machine factory in Clyde.

“And you know what it was like. I came through today, and everybody was out there. Tremendous crowds, waving and cheering. I said, ‘I must have done it right.’ ”

Trump seemed to revel in a smaller but ready-made crowd last weekend at his private golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. There, Trump invited club guests in golf clothes to listen in on a presidential news conference on Friday evening and a signing ceremony for four executive actions on Saturday.

The guests applauded Trump, booed the media and laughed along with the president in a subdued facsimile of his rollicking rallies.

After signing the papers, Trump had a little fun with his audience.

“Would anybody like a pen?” he asked playfully, as guests called out and jockeyed to catch the presidential signing pen. “Would anybody like a pen?”

Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.