COVID campaigning: Team Trump, RNC consider shift to all-outdoor rallies ... and convention?

A smart choice, if the reports from NBC News and the Washington Post are accurate. Donald Trump has champed at the bit to return to the campaign trail, hoping to reinvigorate his political base and stoke enthusiasm ahead of the November election. That impatience ended up backfiring in Tulsa, where the indoor venue and a clear reluctance of even his fervent backers to risk exposure to COVID-19 led to much smaller crowds than expected.

Rather than risk more poor optics, Team Trump has shifted its thinking on venues, NBC reports. Instead of indoor arenas where the risk is highest, they now want to focus on staying outdoors, where transmission risk is much lower:

“We can’t have a repeat of Tulsa,” a campaign official said, bluntly conceding that a rally on Saturday in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, must be approached differently as the coronavirus pandemic sets daily case records and creates havoc for political planners.

Instead of opting for an indoor venue, as it did in Tulsa, the Trump campaign selected an open-air airport tarmac hangar to minimize its footprint Saturday and to appease health experts who stress that outdoor events are safer, although mass gatherings are still considered risky. …

A White House official said the president “sees now,” after the disappointing turnout three weeks ago in Tulsa, that his supporters may not turn out for him at his rallies — or the convention — as they did four years ago because of concerns about the virus.

“It can’t be 2016,” the official said.

It’s clearly not 2016, not in several ways, but COVID-19 is the most dramatic difference by far. Trump’s rallies in 2015-16 were a new phenomenon then too, and neither the media nor the Democrats knew what to make of that raw enthusiasm for the populist outsider. This time around, neither will get surprised by the rallies, and both may have a more effective counter to them — treat them like a health hazard. That worked in Tulsa, and it will continue to work as long as the virus keeps up its kinetic spread.

Moving venues to the outdoors counters that narrative, at least in part. And that may be why the RNC is considering yet another plan for the GOP convention at the end of next month:

The Republican convention in Jacksonville, Fla., next month could be moved to an outdoor stadium as cases of the novel coronavirus in the state increase, according to several officials with knowledge of the plans.

While no decision has been made, Republican officials are studying two outdoor professional sports stadiums near the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena where the convention is currently slated to be held. They are also looking more broadly into the logistics of pulling off an outdoor convention, according to two Republicans involved in the planning. …

Trump was recently briefed on the options of moving the convention away from the indoor arena, officials said, and is expected to make a final decision in upcoming days.

Republicans involved in the planning believe there could be less risk of transmission and spreading for attendees in a larger outdoor arena than in the stadium, and attendees may be less concerned about taking part in such an event.

That’s really the key issue. By normal measures, Tulsa was actually a success; they got thousands of people to turn out to a campaign event, even in the pandemic. But compared against the track record of Trump’s rallies — by the metric of his earlier successes — it was a flop. People just didn’t want to turn out in huge numbers for an indoor rally, and it’s the huge numbers that make those events a phenomenon. Trump can’t win if he’s holding ordinary campaign events; he has to remain bigger than life to score those points.

Outdoor venues give Trump a better chance of matching his earlier successes. One has to wonder, though, just how many more people will choose to attend on the basis of venue choice. This may not rescue Team Trump from its rally dilemma, but they should start getting an answer to that question over the next couple of weeks, long enough to make a decision on the convention question.