WASHINGTON — It was supposed to be the moment President Donald Trump restarted his campaign and got on the offensive, with time slipping away before voting begins. Instead, Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, became one more in a string of unforced errors, leaving his campaign now searching for a reboot to the reboot.
In the hours after the event, advisers and Republican strategists admitted the night was a flop and a missed opportunity to shift the momentum into Trump’s direction — and said it was unclear when there might be another rally. Still, they insisted there was plenty of time to recover from the images of a thinly filled arena, headlines about infected aides and a speech that failed to hit on the most pressing issues with voters.
“This was a bad night for our effort,” said one senior adviser. “Hardly a deal-breaker, lots of time to go, many miles ahead. But everything was awful tonight: crowd size, lack of focus in the speech, way too many riff stories.”
The campaign was quick to blame the partially full arena on media coverage and protesters — accusing them of scaring away rally-goers. As Trump jetted back to Washington, his campaign issued a statement highlighting the number of people who had viewed the rally online, a statement reminiscent of the early administration claims regarding Trump’s inauguration crowd size.
It’s a refrain that Trump aides and advisers have made repeatedly over the past few months: It's not good, but it's not our fault, and we can recover. To Trump campaign veterans, many of whom have never worked on a losing race, the most commonly expressed sentiment is that they expect the planets to once again align as they did in 2016, and that the best way for them to pull off another come-from-behind victory is to double down on many of the same tactics they used that year.
They acknowledge the poll numbers haven’t been good and that the president’s response to the unrest following the death of George Floyd has done little if anything to help him with moderate voters. But they continue to cite a long-held belief that polls undercount Trump’s supporters.
Inside the White House, there is growing certainty the election will once again be decided by a handful of votes, said an administration official.
“He is his own worst enemy,” said a campaign adviser, citing recent “unforced errors” by the president that include a Twitter attack on a 75-year-old Buffalo protestor in serious condition after being shoved by police.
Trump wagered a large amount of political capital by holding a rally in the middle of a pandemic, drawing a week of headlines about the public health concerns around such a large indoor gathering. The event also became its own source of controversy for initially being scheduled to take place on Juneteenth, near the site of one of American’s worst race riots.
But to Trump, it was a personal priority — the restart of his campaign after months mostly confined to the White House.
“We haven’t started campaigning, you know. I have not, essentially, started. I guess you could say it starts on Saturday, right?” Trump said in a Wall Street Journal interview this week, adding he expected the event to be “a hell of a night.”
Aides had wagered the criticism would be a worthwhile investment to get the president back on the road, where they saw the rallies as not only a key tool to fire up Trump’s base and deliver his message, but also a way to collect massive troves of valuable data on his supporters.
None of those bets panned out as expected. Trump spent large chunks of the speech devoted to himself — complaining about the age of Air Force One and observations of how slowly he walked down a ramp during his public appearance at West Point earlier this month. Even the data haul was likely tainted by thousands of TikTok users who said they registered for rally tickets they had no intention of using as a way to interfere with the event.
But there remained a hope that this moment marked the low point where the effects of the economic shutdown and the death of George Floyd are still strongly influencing the mood in the country, aides and advisers said. They said they anticipated the level of unrest in the country would settle as more Americans returned to work, boosting Trump’s poll numbers back to being within a few points of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden — a deficit they viewed as surmountable with a strong push to turn out their base and continued attacks on the former vice president.
“In some ways, I’d think it would be worse,” the adviser said of recent poll numbers. “You have 40 million people out of work.”
Much of that calculation is centered on the assumption that the economy will rebound in the coming months, making it crucial that businesses continue to reopen so the campaign can pitch an American comeback story. Even if the country is still struggling with millions unemployed and a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall, advisers say they were all but certain the numbers will have improved from April and May, a White House official said.
One key advantage the Trump campaign has cited for months is its fundraising prowess, enabling it to spend heavily on its massive rallies. While the Republican National Committee announced Saturday that its joint fundraising committee with the campaign had raised a monthly record of $74 million in May, Biden and the Democratic National Committee brought in slightly more, with an $80 million haul.
The Trump campaign has sought a number of different ways to define Biden, several of which Trump cycled through in Tulsa, including trying to tie him to the far-left wing of the party and attacking his mental acumen. Biden has seen a drop in his favorability rating since the start of the year, a sign the attacks may be having an effect, but he consistently remains more popular than Trump.
“The Trump campaign can't change perceptions about Trump. The challenge is that it's going to be difficult to substantially change perceptions about Biden,” said Mark McKinnon, George W. Bush’s chief media adviser in 2004. “He's been around a long time, he's been vice president, and voters have a pretty good idea about who he is and what he stands for.”
At the same time, Trump needs to ensure his base is sticking with him, something Bush didn’t have as a vulnerability at this time in his re-election. Trump's support among non-college-educated white men, seniors and evangelical voters has slipped in polls over the past several months.
On the airwaves, the campaign’s spending has been focused on reaching those groups with the most money being spent in the reddest regions of key states, and it has recently started running ads in states where the campaign had thought they had a comfortable lead, like in Ohio and Iowa.
But the predicament for Trump continues to be that the messaging that resonates with his base, including the language he used in Tulsa Saturday night — the defense of Confederate monuments, the threat to use force to respond to protests against police misconduct — alienates those swing voters to whom he needs to appeal to hold on to the White House.
“We go through this every four years in the Republican Party, and quite frankly a lot of us are exhausted by it. We are not going to expand our base five months out from the damn election," said Michael Steele, former chairman of the RNC. "Really, what have you been doing for the last three years? Alienating all the people who could have helped you expand the base.”
Campaign officials push back on the notion they are following a purely base strategy, despite the president's Tulsa messaging aimed at his core supporters. Despite widespread criticism of Trump’s response to protests over police violence, campaign officials have insisted the same message that has resonated with working-class white voters will attract working-class Black and Latino voters.
While it is unlikely Trump would gain significant ground, even a few thousand more Black votes in a state like Michigan could prove to be pivotal. If nothing else, the aim is to hold Black turnout to where it was in 2016 compared to the higher levels of 2012, the White House official said.
That strategy may have been an effective one at the start of the year, but Trump himself has been an inconsistent messenger at best. Speaking in Tulsa — site of the worst episodes of anti-Black violence in U.S. history — the day after Juneteenth, Trump failed to acknowledge either, also failing to mention the death of George Floyd.
The president’s appeal to Black voters has been seriously hurt by his response to the coronavirus pandemic and protests that followed Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, said Joel Payne, who oversaw Black voter media outreach for the Hillary Clinton campaign. He sees little risk to Biden’s appeal with Black voters from Trump, at this point.
"I think there were some places I’m sure their campaign could have nibbled around the edges, pulled a couple votes here and there, particularly among younger Black men,” Payne said. “That is gone, that doesn’t exist anymore.”
The outside dynamics from within and without seemed to push themselves onto center stage in Tulsa. The image of somber-faced Trump emerging from Marine One well after midnight with his collar unbuttoned and his tie uncharacteristically undone, walking toward the White House clutching a red Make America Great Again cap, rocketed across social media overnight.
A Republican strategist who supported Trump in 2016 said that on Saturday, the president's campaign team had faced the undeniable combined result of outside circumstances beyond their control, their own missteps and the president's rising election-year insecurity.
“They did this to themselves too," this strategist said in a text message. "The Virus, the potential for violence, the invitation to violence, and the disrespect for Blacks I’m sure all contributed to the dud. Trump’s anxiety to get out prematurely got the best of them.”