WASHINGTON — As the 2020 campaign wound down, President Donald Trump held rallies across the country to fire up his supporters and get them out to vote. Many saw the rallies as a sign of big enthusiasm for Trump, but the data suggest the visits did not produce the desired impact for the president.
Comparing Trump campaign stops over the last two weeks of the race to election results shows that in the overwhelming majority of cases, Trump underperformed his 2016 margins in the counties he visited, in some cases by large amounts.
There were 30 Trump campaign stops in that period, according to an NBC News tally, in states from Arizona to Nebraska to Pennsylvania. In five counties that Trump visited he saw better results than he did in 2016, but in the remaining 25 his margins of victory got smaller, his margin of defeat grew or the county flipped Democratic.
The numbers are important to note because they raise questions about how journalists and analysts perceive campaigns.
Crowd sizes are often held out as a way to gauge support for a politician, and sometimes they are. But during a pandemic, with a polarizing candidate on the stump, it’s possible the meaning of the rallies were misread. While the crowds were visible sign of enthusiasm for Trump, there were much bigger, and less visible, groups of people who were not at the rallies and who may have seen them in a negative light.
A look at some crucial states that were the sites of several rallies offers some evidence for an invisible, negative impact for the president.
In Michigan, Trump held five events in the last two weeks of the campaign and in every one of those counties, his 2020 margins were worse than they were in 2016. Some notable examples are below.
On Oct. 27, Trump held a rally in Ingham County, the home of Lansing, and in the election results he did 5.5 percentage points worse than he did in 2016 as Joe Biden beat him there by more than 32 points. On Oct. 30, Trump held an event in Oakland County north of Detroit. He lost Oakland by 14 points this year — 6 points worse than he did in 2016. And on Nov. 2, Trump held a rally in Grand Traverse County in the northern reaches of the state. Trump still won the county, but by only 3 points, which was 9 points less than his margin in 2016.
The pattern was similar in Pennsylvania. Trump held seven events in the state in the last two weeks of the campaign and in every county Trump visited he did slightly worse than he did in 2016.
Trump visited Erie, the ultimate swing county in the state, on Oct. 20 and in the end the county narrowly flipped to Joe Biden by a single point after narrowly backing Trump in 2016. The president visited Lancaster County on Oct. 26 and he still won it by about 16 points, but that was 3 points less than he won it by in 2016. And on Nov. 2, Trump visited Scranton, in Lackawanna County, but when the votes were tallied he lost the county by more than 8 points, roughly 5 points worse than his loss there in 2016.
There were a few bright spots on the Trump campaign tour, particularly in Florida, one of the battlegrounds he carried in 2020. Trump visited the state four times in the last two weeks of the campaign, and while he didn’t improve in most of the places he visited, his numbers got a lot better in Miami-Dade.
Trump visited Escambia County in the Florida panhandle on Oct. 23 and he still won the county by 15 points, but margin was 5 points less than his 2016 margin there. The president went to Hillsborough County, the home of Tampa, on Oct. 29 and still lost the county to Joe Biden, but basically by the same margin he lost it to Hillary Clinton. And just before Election Day, on Nov. 1, Trump stopped in Miami-Dade for a massive rally at Opa-Locka, where there was good news on Election Day.
Trump vastly improved margins in Miami-Dade. He lost it by 7 points, but that margin was 22 points better than his loss in the county in 2016. The gains were a true bright spot for Trump and GOP and it could be that his rally there helped fire up the base. But Miami-Dade is the exception in these numbers, not the rule.
To be clear, none of this is provable. These are correlations, not one-for-one causal relationships. Trump’s rallies may have helped him, even in the places where he underperformed in 2020. Maybe they prevented him from doing worse.
But his margin losses in rally counties clearly hurt him in close states. And if the goal of all the barn-storming was to inspire and turnout the Trump base, the data at least suggest the rallies may have stirred the president’s opposition as well.