American politics, I sometimes jokingly remark, is a full contact sport, and this election campaign has been the most tumultuous and brutal in recent US history. Of great fascination this time is the divergent paths taken by the Biden and Trump campaigns on the manner in which they campaign. I will write more on this after the election once the result is known and so we can judge the merits of each style as to what resulted in victory.
I have always wanted to attend a Presidential campaign rally… for both parties, to get a feel for the differing atmospheres and so when Trump came to town for his first publicly available rally in the metro Phoenix area, I decided to go. I’d like to have gone to the Biden event in Phoenix on October 8, but it was not advertised, and it turned out to be for invited guests and media only. Before I speak about the Trump rally and his rallies in general, it is important to note that the Biden campaign not only holds significantly fewer rallies but limits attendance because of the coronavirus. Biden usually has around 50 people only in socially distanced circles and the most he has ever had so far was a rally in Georgia a few days ago when 350 showed up. Trump’s rallies average between 20 – 25,000 and are held almost exclusively outdoors near the hangers of smaller regional airports. The campaigns mock each other’s tactics, Trump calls Biden Sleepy Joe and taunts him on the few times he seems to venture out from the basement of his Wilmington, Delaware home and for the meagre attendances and Biden accuses Trump of reckless disregard for the pandemic and his surrogates have taken to calling Trump rallies super spreader events. With that introduction, here’s how a Trump rally looks.
Even though Trump’s rallies are massive compared to Biden’s, there are actually limits placed on numbers usually by the Fire Departments of the municipalities where they are held. In theory all attendees are issued a ticket – in reality the Trump campaign website uses the ticketing process to collect email addresses and cell phone numbers for GOTV targeting. I was never issued an eticket as I enrolled too late with available ‘spaces’ being snapped up within hours. As it turned out, I bumped into an acquaintance who is a campaign volunteer and she said just show up early enough and you’ll get in as they don’t ask to see the tickets although they close the gate once the capacity is reached. My friend who came with me also enrolled and he did get an email and text confirmation. The sign up process was quick and easy and clear instructions were given with directions and what can or can’t be brought to the rally.
With a rally in such a large metropolitical area (greater Phoenix is almost 5 million), organisers planned for upwards of 30,000. It is easy to gloss over the huge logistics needed to host an event this large. Traffic must be managed so hundreds of police were commandeered from all of the cities on the west side of Phoenix as well as county and state police. You either park in expensive private car parks 15 minutes’ walk away or you park at the campaign’s designated site. There are the bleachers and miles of barricades to be installed, hundreds of fold up chairs for VIP sections, large signs to be erected, huge TV monitors, press bleachers, the podium and platform and logistics of where to park Airforce One so that it is behind the President when on camera and all the usual controlling of the air space coming in and out and making sure that the huge armoured Presidential Cadillac limo (called The Beast) is there to take the President from the plane steps to the rally site. There is the temperature checking and mask distribution tents and then the dozens of metal detector and bag search tables to be hired and set up. Then there are the dozens and dozens of buses that must be hired to shuttle attendees from the designated parking area to the airport. Then there are the paid staffers and many hundreds of volunteers who man the car parks, direct the buses, staff booths selling campaign gear, organise porta loos, schedule vendors selling food, distribute free water bottles to attendees, direct foot traffic and marshal in VIPs. Each rally is a monumental task of coordinated organisation and the Trump campaign does 2 or 3 a day and in the last few days of the campaign, he’ll do 5 or 6! Since the lockdowns were lifted and the GOP recommenced rallies, Trump has held 50 outdoor and 1 indoor event (the fateful Tulsa, OK rally in July). Each rally must cost $500,000 at least so by the time of election day, the campaign likely will have spent $35 million on rallies alone. Each rally is like a mini Superbowl and the Trump campaign will end up doing 70 just like the one yesterday! It’s at times like these that you realise what a huge place America is and the sheer scale of Presidential elections campaigns with EACH campaign spending over $1 Billion!
The site for the designated parking was a massive 30 acre piece of empty land on a main road in the town of Litchfield about 6 miles (10 kms) from the Goodyear airport (a small airport that specialises in aircraft repair). We arrived 3 hours prior to the start and already there were 10,000s of cars packed in. Trump campaign volunteers with matching T shirts and white Trump cowboy hats guided the traffic in and so the parking went smoothly given the massive influx of cars. Lined up were about 12 huge buses and people just joined the queue and loaded on the first bus and so on. We ended up on a double decker bus which was fun.
Arriving at the site you soon saw why parking at the designated parking area was the best option because the police cordon was tight and probably 1 km from the site. It took a while to get off the bus due to the long queue of buses disgorging their passengers. Once off the buses, there were two checkpoints to pass through: a temperature check and getting a mask and then security. The first checkpoint had two lines, one for ticket holders and the other for those in a wait list in case not all ticketed people showed up. Normally at Trump rallies the numbers that show up greatly exceed capacity and so these people wait outside and view the rally on a giant screen. The temperature check was quick and anyone testing with a mild fever was turned away. Masks were optional because in Arizona and in the City of Goodyear, there is no outdoor mask mandate, only for indoor public spaces and only in the larger metro areas.
Once done with the temperature check you entered a very long security check queue lined with barricades and with toilets and vendors selling at the back. It was amazing to see the diversity of people lining up – of course plenty of Caucasians like us but I was stunned at the number of Hispanics and African Americans at the event. All ages were represented and not a few kids bunking school! Of note was the vast array of Trump paraphernalia being worn: hats, caps, t – shirts some with quite humourous lines and on behalf of groups (Latinos for Trump, Jews for Trump, Gays for Trump, Cops for Trump, Firemen for Trump even Armenians for Trump!), bags, flags and posters. I was one of the very few with no identifiable Trump gear on me. The line moved quite quickly, spirits were high, and everyone was very friendly. Next to us was an older women originally from Germany and a young black student who was a proud recent convert to Trump. The security screen was all run by the Secret Service (the branch of the Federal Government tasked to protect the President) assisted by TSA agents seconded from the main Phoenix airport. These are the lower level local SS staffers who do the perimeter screening versus the suited Presidential details that travel with him. I have to say that the SS have the most badass uniforms – imagine the average US cop but on steroids – completely black with a cool understated logo and all the gear you can imagine and all young, big and athletic. All bags were searched, and we had to give up our apples (could be thrown), cupcakes and brownies and a tube of Pringles. I could keep water bottles (although free water was given out), an energy bar and bananas.
When we arrived, it was already about 2/3rds full and so we were unable to get much of a decent position. When I was using the toilet, my friend managed to get into one of the bleachers where lower level VIPs were allowed to sit next to one of his mates who is a donor and he told me just to wait for the guy guarding the entrance to be distracted by the crowds and just walk in which I did despite not having the necessary lanyard. I was stopped a second time by a lady near the bleachers and just said that I’d been to the bathroom and she let me through. Now I didn’t have a seat per se but could sit on the step next to the bottom row and as it turned out, it was a brilliant position some 40 feet (12 m) from the podium. Also, in the neighbouring seat was one of the Republican representatives in the Arizona State House of Representatives and she proved to be a mine of information about the Trump campaign. She was fascinated to learn about NZ elections and campaigning.
The format once inside
The format is almost always the same. The ‘show’ is sequenced as follows:
- A central speaker’s podium on a raised platform is usually set in the middle of the rally area. The most important VIPs are in seated chairs in front and immediately to the side. In the front row were the other speakers and senior campaign and White House Staff and to the side also with easy access were all the major Arizona politicians – the Governor, Senator McSally, several of the GOP Congressmen and women, the GOP House Minority Leader, senior party officials and the AZ House Speaker. These areas are cordoned off with barricades manned by Secret Service assisted by the most massive and intimidating security guards dressed in black.
- There is a special set of bleachers in front of the podium at the back of the public area for the flood lights, TV cameras and the press pool. Behind the podium is the largest bleacher with hand selected people to be in the line of sight of the cameras televising the event. These people had colour coordinated gear and all wore campaign masks (although mask wearing in the main crowd was about 70:30 and mostly older people). Many in the bleacher behind the podium were Hispanics and each alternate person carried a distinctive Latinos for Trump sign. The rally location was chosen on the west side of Phoenix which is predominantly Hispanic due to the campaign’s efforts to woo the Latino vote. Others were high level donors who essentially bought their way into the premier location. On ether side were smaller bleachers for people who had paid extra for expedited entry. The sections closest to the large bleacher also were reserved for more POC and were a mixture of all ages and types, businesspeople, and ex – military.
- The main crowds filled up with standing room only behind the VIP seats and spilling out quite a distance either side of the podium. By about 1 hour before the event, the place was chocka.
- Loud motivating music played over the speakers. It was quite the classic playlist: Eye of the Tiger, We are the Champions and Bohemian Rhapsody, several Elton John hits and also some classic Michael Jackson with a few toe tapping country songs thrown in.
- Short warm up speakers kept the crowd entertained and at around about 45 minutes before Trump’s arrival, a singer sung “The Star Spangled Banner”, the National anthem and then everyone doffed hats and placed hands on hearts and pledged allegiance to the flag and it was quite the flag – a gigantic one hoisted by two cranes.
- 20 minutes out from arrival and most of the VIPs had arrived and my neighbour was able to explain who was who. Various Trump campaign staff came out with boxes of MAGA hats (now with 45 on the side) and threw heaps of them randomly into the crowd. Staffers also distributed water bottles as the temperature by now was about 24 C and sunny.
- Running about 15 minutes late, Airforce One was spotted in the sky and the crowd went crazy and as it landed, people were craning to get a shot of the iconic blue 747. More Secret Service agents began to man the barricades and speakers platform, the podium was cleaned and sanitized, the discrete teleprompters were adjusted and an official looking blue binder with the Presidential seal was placed on the podium.
- Trump’s preferred entrance song is “Proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood and we could see the assembled small motorcade of SS agents and the Beast leave to pick up the President. As Trump walks in, the crowd is going berserk and everyone is on their feet and smart phone cameras rolling. Trump takes his time working the crowd, pointing at people, and raising his fist on a 90 degree angle and slightly pumping it. He looks happy and relaxed wearing a nice blue suit, white shirt and a red tie and of course his trademark fake light blond hair. He doesn’t look orange but sports a light late summer tan.
- Trump gives a typical stump speech that he’s now given with a few local variations over 50 times in this campaign alone. His is clever though – he mixes it up and weaves in praise for the location, name checks local politicians and incorporates commentary on the news of the day. He is extremely natural and charming, wise cracks regularly and mercilessly mocks his opponent. His practiced one liners are relentlessly optimistic, painting a positive vision of an America recovering economically from the lockdowns and he is encyclopedic in his reporting of his achievements in office. He paints a dystopian and dark vision of life under Biden – Harris and characteristically exaggerates like the showman he is (these statements will be described by the army of fact checkers later as more Trump lies). I will give more impressions at the end.
- The crowd was raucous and loud and interspersed his speech with chants of; U – S – A, 4 more years, Drain The Swamp, We Love You, CNN Sucks and one Lock Him Up.
The additional speakers are seamlessly woven in and each gave very short maybe 1 – 2 minute rousing stump speeches that were actually very impressive. They were:
Senator Martha McSally
McSally attempted to win the Senate seat left vacant by the retirement of Jeff Flake in 2018 and was just beaten by a moderate sounding Democrat Congresswoman called Krysten Sinema. McSally had fought a weak and poorly organised campaign. Governor Ducey appointed McSally to fill the vacant position left by the death of John McCain, but AZ electoral law requires any appointed Senator to face the electorate at the next election and not in the customary Senate six year term. In 2020 she faces former astronaut Mark Kelley, husband to former Tucson Congresswoman Gabby Gifford who was shot in 2011. It has been a very tough campaign against a high profile well-funded opponent and indeed backing McSally was probably the main reason for Trump’s visit to Phoenix. Her speech was a barnstorming summary of her versus her liberal opponent and she has been a full throated and never hesitant supporter of Trump.
Senator Rand Paul
Maverick Kentucky and prominent libertarian Senator Rand Paul took some time to become a strong Trump advocate but praised Trump for ending the USA’s “endless wars” and for supporting criminal justice reform. He castigated Obama for not supporting this reform that has seen mostly blacks incarcerated for low level drug crimes released early. Paul gave a full throated libertarian defense of Trump. In 2016 many libertarians, suspicious of Trump given his prior liberal proclivities in New York City, supported the quixotic campaign of Evan McMullin.
Senator Mike Lee
As a Senator from Utah, Lee is from the conservative, law and order side of the party and he was a fascinating choice as he publicly backed fellow Utah Mormon Evan McMullin in 2016 mostly because he saw Trump as unlikely to be a conservative. Lee speaks fluent Spanish and spoke for a few minutes in Spanish directly to the Latino audience members extolling Trump’s achievements in the Hispanic community and appealing to the Catholic views on abortion strongly endorsed by Trump and for his successful appointment of Catholic Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. He was received rapturously. He spoke specifically to Protestant and Evangelicals about his Christian faith and Trump’s adherence to broad pro-life Christian principles and then spoke to fellow Mormons who voted for McMullin because of the Trump’s moral failings flirting with Biden and invoked a hero from their culture likening him to Trump. McMullin had an outsized appeal to the substantial minority LDS population in the East Valley of Phoenix and the rural north east of the state.
Farage has been a long time friend of Trump’s and gave a very powerful globally focused eulogy to his friend in his characteristic charismatic way that saw him be the driver of Brexit in the UK. He has the knack of succinctly and powerfully summing up Trump’s virtues.
Conclusions and thoughts
- Trump appeared to be much younger looking and trimmer in person. I suspect he lost weight during his bout with Covid. He oozed self-confidence and charisma and worked the crowd perfectly. He seemed relaxed and effortless, showing no visible signs of fatigue despite his most punishing schedule of rallies especially considering his age.
- The Republican campaign operation, as visible at this rally, was slick and consummately professional.
- Americans are patriotic and really respond to appeals to patriotism. The whole MAGA thing is an anathema to almost all other nations but Americans, raised on the founding story of uniqueness and greatness, seem to respond more to Presidents who tap into that cultural vein. His critics will call it populism and nationalism but for middle America, Trump strikes many pitch perfect notes.
- US elections involve the expenditure of eye popping sums that to us kiwis seem almost incomprehensible. A rally like this is a window into the sheer vast scale of a US Presidential election campaign.
- The rallies serve an important purpose above the more obvious ones like rallying the base, supporting down ballot candidates, and maintaining the candidate’s message momentum. The GOP detailed the research the campaign garnered from the rally sign ups and these are figures that do fluctuate from rally location to location and the figures are startling. 15% of attendees were Democrats and 30% were unaffiliated first time voters or voters who never voted in 2016 so will never show up in a Likely voter screen during polling. That means that almost 50% of Trump rally attendees are persuadable people. Based on an average attendance of 20,000 (many are more) that’s almost 10,000 potential new voters per rally. Assuming Trump seals the deal with only half that number, that’s 5,000 new votes he picks up per rally at a minimum. He will finish the race at 70 rallies so that’s 350,000 new voters, the vast bulk of which are in Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Arizona as he has made only single visits to Nevada, New Hampshire, Nebraska, and Iowa. That is more than his total winning margin in FL, WI, MI, and PA in 2016 so there is a steely electoral vote calculation in all the enormous cost and effort.
The coronavirus thrust the world and America into such a tumultuous and uncertain electoral environment, I would be foolish to make a prediction as to who will win but the atmosphere and electricity at this rally and the demeanor of Trump did not have the look and feel of a losing campaign. If the mainstream polls are out by the same margin they were in 2016 then Trump wins this running away. If they are accurate, then these rallies will be his last dramatic hurrah. Roll on November 3!