Donald Trump keeps falling further behind in the 2020 polls, even as his scandals keep getting uglier, and more of his former allies keep loudly coming out against him. Trump seem to be under the delusion that if he keeps pretending his rally crowd sizes are huge, it’ll make everything okay. But he’s even missing the point on that front – and so are most people covering the campaign.
Donald Trump is obsessed with convincing us that he’s drawing crowds that are as large as ever, and that the large numbers of empty seats we’re all seeing on the TV cameras are just a figment of our imagination. Trump even keeps insisting that he’s more popular than Elton John (maybe it’s just Rocket Man envy). But even if Trump were drawing crowds as large as he did in 2016, it wouldn’t necessarily bode well for him.
Here’s a secret in plain sight that never gets talked about: crowd size has never been an indicator of voter turnout. In fact it’s generally a counter indicator. It makes sense, but only if you think it all the way through. You draw crowds in the thousands, but you draw voters in the millions. Rally crowds only represent the small fraction of your voters who are the most die-hard enthusiastic. So crowd size is an indicator of how fanatical your biggest fans are. Larger crowds suggest that you’re running the kind of campaign that’s hugely appealing to a narrower segment of people, not broadly appealing to a larger segment of people. If you can’t follow that logic, just follow the numbers.
In the 1940 election, Republican nominee Wendell Wilkie drew massive rally crowds, but he got blown out by Franklin Roosevelt. In the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders drew crowds that were whole number multiples than that of Hillary Clinton, but she ended up getting four million votes more than he did. In the 2016 general election, Donald Trump drew massive crowds, but Clinton ended up getting three million more votes than he did.
The cold hard reality is that while campaign rallies are meaningful for devoted attendees, and they make for a great television spectacle, the crowd size is simply not an indicator of voter turnout. You could throw darts and get more accurate results. Donald Trump loves talking about his crowd size because he’s a narcissist. But his crowd size didn’t put him over the top in 2016 (Russian hackers, GOP voter suppression, James Comey, and the failings of the Electoral College did). If Trump really is politically braindead enough to think that crowd size is the trick to the 2020 election, he might as well drop out now.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report