WASHINGTON ― What happens when 1 million people RSVP to say they are coming to a venue that only holds 19,199?
Such is the absurdist situation President Donald Trump and his campaign are boasting about as he resumes hosting political rallies on Saturday at the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa. “Almost One Million people request tickets for the Saturday Night Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma!” Trump wrote in a statement he posted to Twitter Monday.
Later, during a White House photo opportunity, the president said an additional 40,000 would be able to watch the rally from the convention center next door on television screens. “Which would mean they would have over 900,000 people that won’t be able to go. But hopefully, they’ll be watching,” he said.
It is unclear why Trump’s campaign – which has already spent three-quarters of a billion dollars since January 2017, only to trail in the polls to Democratic challenger Joe Biden – is even holding a rally in Oklahoma, a deeply Republican state nearly completely surrounded by other Republican states.
“I don’t know why they’re having a rally there at all, to be honest,” said one Republican adviser close to the White House who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re fine, if you’re actually doing them in places that matter.”
If past is prologue, Trump may well get on stage Saturday and simply claim that those with tickets who could not get in because of fire marshal restrictions are waiting outside – all 981,000 of them. In reality, it is unlikely that many or even most of those who signed up for tickets on the Trump campaign’s website have any intention of making their way to Tulsa – a city with a population of 406,000 in a state of only 4 million.
In any event, the Trump campaign has long admitted that its rallies are a tool for harvesting cellphone numbers and email addresses of people who sign up to attend. Those individuals are then bombarded with emails and text messages asking for campaign donations and targeted with ads on Facebook and Instagram.
“It’s about the signing up, rather than the showing up,” the White House adviser said, adding that each Trump rally generates thousands of new names, including many people who are not even registered to vote yet. “That’s the only thing that helps organize this campaign, is a rally.”
David Axelrod, an architect of former President Barack Obama’s campaign that set the standard for data-based microtargeting, said merely gathering the names and contact information means little unless that information can be translated into persuading those people to influence their social circle to vote for Trump.
“It’s about activating them as digital organizers to get friends and family to vote, wherever they may be,” Axelrod said.
In the case of Trump, he added, there is likely an alternate rationale, as well: “It’s also about aggrandizing the president’s fragile ego and need, in this vulnerable moment, to be bathed in the love and approval he desperately craves.”
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has alluded to voter mobilization efforts along those lines for previous rallies. On Jan. 28, following one attended by 8,000 in Wildwood, New Jersey, Parscale bragged on Twitter that 158,632 tickets had been requested and 73,482 voters had been identified, of whom 10.4% had not voted in 2016, and 26.3% were Democrats.
“Mind boggling,” Parscale wrote, adding an emoji of a surprised face.
Other Republican consultants, though, had a different explanation of all the hype Parscale and the campaign are using to boost Saturday’s rally in Tulsa.
“You think a Ferrari buys itself?” asked John Weaver, who worked on the presidential campaigns of John McCain and John Kasich.
Parscale, who became close to Trump’s adult children when he designed websites for Trump family businesses nearly a decade ago, has grown renowned for becoming wealthy off his work for both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, despite no previous experience in politics.
Federal Election Commission filings show that Parscale’s companies were paid $93.9 million for the 2016 election, and $38.9 million for the 2020 election through the March 31 reporting period.
How much of that money wound up in Parscale’s pocket cannot be determined from FEC records, but it was enough to allow him to buy a $1.4 million waterfront home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a $400,000 boat to tie up behind it, a Ferrari, a Land Rover and a pair of $1 million condos.
Weaver ridiculed the idea that Trump was getting anything useful by staging a rally in Oklahoma, a state he won by 36 percentage points in 2016. “Do you think any of these people are undecided?” he asked. “Do they need Facebook ads aimed at them?”
Stuart Stevens, who worked on the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, said Parscale is merely trying to show Trump that he is doing something as his boss’s approval ratings slide from the coronavirus pandemic and anti-racism protests.
“I think it’s Parscale trying to save his job by bragging about it,” Stevens said. “Parscale is a process guy, not a message guy. So, when threatened, he doubles down on process.”
The practice of “overselling” tickets to Trump’s rallies goes back to his 2016 run.
Among all the people with confirmations, the first who show up are admitted, until the venue fills to capacity. Trump’s most loyal fans adjusted by showing up hours or even a day or two early to make sure they would be close enough to the front of the line to get good seats. That, in turn, led to a staple of Trump campaign media coverage of interviewing supporters in lines, sometimes blocks long, waiting for the doors to open.
Handing out more tickets than there is room also gives Trump a standard line at the start of each speech about how many people cannot get in and have to remain outside ― although his claims as to how many are outside have ranged from somewhat exaggerated to downright laughable.
On Oct. 22, 2018, for example, Trump held a rally at the Toyota Center in Houston, which holds 18,300. He told his audience that there were “about 50,000 people outside.” According to the Houston police, there were about 3,000 people outside.
Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who worked on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign, said he doesn’t understand why Trump and his people keep bragging about their rally attendance in the first place.
“Free tickets to a freak show are not hard to give away and a good time will be had by all,” Tyler noted. “But there is a reason the circus only comes to town until the crowds thin and it’s time to move on. The problem for team Trump is that his market share of voters has not expanded beyond people who love clown shows.”