Here’s something that’s absolutely true and pretty easily demonstrated, but almost never gets talked about: in a presidential election, rally crowd size is not an indicator of voter turnout. It never has been. Instead, it’s an indicator of something else that’s just as problematic for Donald Trump.
In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton drew far smaller crowds than Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. But she got four million more primary votes than Sanders, and three million more general election votes than Trump. This wasn’t an aberration; it was the trend. When you look at past presidential candidates who drew massive crowds, from Eugene Debs in 1912 to Wendell Wilkie in 1940, the one thing they all had in common is that they all lost by millions of votes. There’s a reason for that.
Campaign rallies are supposed to be an opportunity to fire up your most enthusiastic supporters, so they’ll then go back to their communities and urge others to vote for you. It’s an effective tool if you use it right. But if you’re the kind of foot stomping candidate where people just want to come see you because your rallies are a spectacle, it just doesn’t translate into actual votes.
Donald Trump’s collapsing poll numbers and approval rating are a sign that he’ll likely suffer from poor voter turnout in 2020. His poorly attended rally is not a sign of that, because rally crowd sizes don’t translate to votes. Instead, the small crowd means that Trump’s core base of supporters is giving up on him – and that’s the only thing that’s been keeping Trump’s presidency viable.
At no point during Trump’s presidency has he had anything even remotely close to a majority approval rating. He’s never been on stable footing. By all rights he’s had zero political leverage. The media would have declared his presidency dead and buried a long time ago – thus crippling him to the point where he might not even have made it to the end of his term – if not for the media’s relentless obsession with Trump’s base.
Trump’s base isn’t remotely large enough to be relevant. But they’re loud, and they’re deranged, and they’re controversial, which means they’re great for ratings, so the media has already treated them as if they alone could keep Trump propped up – and so that’s become a self fulfilling prophecy. But the script has suddenly flipped entirely. Now the ratings-driven story is about how Trump’s base isn’t all that into him anymore.
If the media finally stops using Donald Trump’s fiery base as an excuse to ignore his non-viable approval rating numbers, the media just might end up declaring Trump’s presidency dead – at which point it will be. Even as we have to keep working diligently on voter registration and voter turnout so we can win the election as decisively as possible, Trump has a more immediate problem. With the narrative that’s now shaping about his base giving up on him, every day that’s left in his current term is going to be an impossible uphill battle for him.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report