WASHINGTON — Well before the call was made to postpone President Donald Trump’s Saturday re-election rally in New Hampshire, the warning lights were flashing red.
There were no signs of the typical throngs of supporters camped out days in advance for a good spot; the Republican governor said he would skip it, advising anyone at high risk to stay home over coronavirus concerns; fears of a repeat of Tulsa’s disappointing turnout weighed heavily; and then came the stormy weather reports, which could have further stifled attendance.
By the time the campaign announced that the Portsmouth event was off, citing “safety concerns” over a tropical storm barreling toward the Northeast on Friday afternoon, people close to the campaign said fears over low turnout also motivated the decision to scrap the event.
The coastal town is not currently expected to be hit directly by the storm, but the decision to reschedule over bad weather is a “convenient excuse” for the Trump 2020 team, one outside adviser told NBC News.
“It’s the perfect timing. The weather may have been dissuading people to attend, but many weren’t coming to begin with because of the virus,” this person said.
It all came as expectations for the campaign’s second attempt at rebooting the president’s 2020 rallies were as low they’ve ever been.
After an underwhelming crowd in Tulsa last month that left President Trump “furious,” according to those close to him, the campaign decided not to estimate any kind of rally attendance for the now-canceled Saturday event. Aides also did not boast about any RSVP numbers for this rally after they claimed nearly one million people requested tickets for the Oklahoma event.
The last time Trump campaigned in New Hampshire in February, he packed an arena of 11,000 people. This time, staffers wouldn’t go anywhere near an anticipated crowd count.
In the days leading up to Trump rallies, aides normally boast about dozens of supporters lining up for blocks around the venue, but the same level of enthusiasm was not displayed widely this week, adding to the nervousness about how many people would actually show up. The more remote location of the rally at an airport and spotty weather may have also contributed.
Thunderstorms are in the forecast for much of Friday night, into Saturday afternoon, but torrential rain was largely expected to clear by the time the rally was supposed to start at 8 pm E.T. Still, aides said they rescheduled out of an abundance of caution due to attendees who may come from out of state, and they promised to announce a new date in the coming weeks.
“With a tropical storm approaching, with the likelihood of lightning storms, holding an event in an airplane hangar on an airport tarmac could be extremely dangerous,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told NBC News.
The New Hampshire GOP state party was “scrambling all week trying to get people to attend,” according to a prominent anti-Trump Republican, who cited Gov. Chris Sununu’s own refusal to attend the mass gathering as a reason locals may have decided to skip the event.
Sununu, a Republican, told reporters Tuesday that he would greet the president on the tarmac, wearing a mask, but would not participate in the rally itself.
“I'm not going to put myself in the middle of a crowd of thousands of people,” Sununu said. “As the governor, I try to be extra cautious for myself and my family.”
The governor also encouraged elderly supporters over the age of 60 to stay away. “To be in a large crowd gathering is a risk that that individual doesn't need to take,” he said.
While New Hampshire has seen a decline in cases in recent months and the gathering was set to take place on an open-air tarmac, local health officials stressed mass gatherings of any kind are still not advisable during the pandemic.