WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s last political rally showed the risks of campaigning in the age of coronavirus.
His rally in New Hampshire on Saturday could be a test run for how those type of big campaign events will go forward in the future – if they go on at all.
“This rally is really a make-or-break moment for Trump,” said Dan Eberhart, an energy company executive and GOP fund-raiser. “This needs to be a success to prove out the strategy that in this kind of COVID environment, these kinds of rallies still have legs, still have purpose and that this type of campaigning can continue.”
Trump’s New Hampshire rally, which will be held at an airport hangar at the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, comes as the president is trying to recharge his struggling campaign amid a recent spike in coronavirus cases and as polls show him trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, in November.
Trump heads to New Hampshire still shadowed by questions over what went wrong at his rally last month in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Even amid lingering concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, campaign officials hyped up that event and boasted that they had received requests for 1 million tickets. Turnout was far smaller than expected, with just 6,200 people showing up and leaving Trump addressing a lot of empty seats in a 19,000-capacity arena.
What’s more, eight campaign staffers on the advance team and two Secret Service agents who worked in Tulsa ahead of that event tested positive for coronavirus. Tulsa’s top health official said Wednesday that the rally and the protests that accompanied it likely contributed to the city’s recent surge in coronavirus cases.
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The event on Saturday will be only Trump’s second in-person rally since much of the country went into lockdown over coronavirus. But it comes as the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. have topped 3 million, more than 133,000 Americans have died from the disease and as the U.S. continues to set a daily record of new cases.
The Trump campaign said it will distribute face masks at Saturday’s event and will encourage attendees to wear them, even though Trump himself has resisted wearing a mask in public.
In New Hampshire, the rally has raised red flags for many local officials concerned about the potential spread of coronavirus from the event. A handful of Portsmouth officials want to mandate that face masks be worn by people attending the event, but Mayor Rick Becksted doesn’t favor such a mandatory policy and says the city has no jurisdiction over the federally owned land where the event will be held.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has said it is “imperative” attendees at the rally wear masks but that he won’t mandate them. Sununu has said he plans to meet Trump at the airport when he arrives, but that he won’t attend the rally.
Holding political rallies while much of the nation is concerned about coronavirus poses real risks for Trump, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“He is a visual reminder of the coronavirus as he speaks,” McLennan said. “He’s speaking in front of big, often unmasked crowds – and sometimes not-so-big crowds – at a time when everybody is paying attention to these (coronavirus) numbers to some degree.
“That being said, I’m not sure the president has any other tools for his campaign. He’s kind of between a rock and a hard place in that that’s what he did in 2016 to great effect.”
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Trump is trying to replicate the campaign formula that worked well for him in 2016, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
“The old saying is campaigns are ultimately reflections of the candidate,” Scala said. “I think for the candidate’s own morale, he feels the need to be out and about and doing these sorts of things that served him well the last time he ran for office.”
Trump lost New Hampshire to Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 2,736 votes. A poll last month by St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics showed him trailing Biden in the Granite State by 7 points.
But while a campaign rally will help fire up Trump’s base and provide him with a made-for-television moment, it is unlikely to move other voters into his camp and might even turn off suburban voters, Scala said.
In New Hampshire, “his real dilemma right now is in the prosperous suburbs, where you find a lot of college-educated voters who are well off,” Scala said. “They likely still have their jobs and so forth, but they are anxious about what’s happening and what will come.”
What some fear will come along with the rally is a spike in coronavirus in a state that has fewer than 6,000 reported cases.
“Living in New Hampshire feels a bit like living in a bubble because in the state the numbers of cases is very low and the number of hospitalizations is low,” Scala said. “All of the metrics point in the right direction. But for a New Hampshire voter looking around the country, we feel very much like an island.
“So for the president to come in does feel a bit like it’s impinging on that bubble. There are all of those concerns of what he brings with him. People come in from out of state. Will it cause a spike in cases? It will raise the anxiety level at a time when a lot of people are understandably very anxious.”
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Regardless, Trump needs a robust turnout on Saturday to reboot his campaign and move on from what happened in Tulsa, Eberhart said.
“The rallies are a barometer of voter sentiment, the living embodiment of Trump’s slumping popularity,” he said. “If the New Hampshire crowd is anemic, it sends the signal to donors that public support for the president is subpar and that they may be throwing good money after bad. He needs a full house and a raucous crowd to recharge his re-elect campaign.”
If he doesn’t get that, he needs to find another way to reach voters, Eberhart said.
“The Tulsa rally was widely panned by the media,” he said. “If the same happens in New Hampshire, he can’t hold a third and a fourth (rally) and just have it continue to pull down the campaign. It’s just not going to work. (The campaign) has to rebound or he has to completely shift to some other way of campaigning.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: Hadley Barndollar of seacoastonline.com
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 campaign: Trump heads to New Hampshire for ‘make or break’ rally