If President Trump’s Tulsa, Okla., rally in late June or his Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore are any indication, he wants a pageantry-filled convention with a big in-person audience when he accepts the Republican nomination in late August.
But the likelihood of that happening may be slim. The 2020 election is taking place in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, and it is especially difficult to slow the spread of the coronavirus in large indoor spaces such as an arena, which is the type of space in which party conventions are usually held. It’s certainly what Trump had envisioned doing this year in Jacksonville, Fla., although some Republicans think the in-person convention may be canceled.
And on the one hand, Trump’s obsession with packing an arena makes some sense. Party conventions do traditionally boost a candidate’s standing in the polls. Since 1968, candidates’ vote share in national polls have increased, on average, by 5 percentage points after conventions. And considering Trump is currently at 41.5 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average — 9.6 points behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden — a boost in his numbers would be welcome news.
|2016||R||July 18-21||Donald Trump||+3|
|2016||D||July 25-28||Hillary Clinton||+2|
|2012||R||Aug. 27-30||Mitt Romney||-1|
|2012||D||Sept. 3-6||Barack Obama||+2|
|2008||D||Aug. 25-28||Barack Obama||+4|
|2008||R||Sept. 1-4||John McCain||+6|
|2004||D||July 26-29||John Kerry||-1|
|2004||R||Aug. 30-Sept. 2||George W. Bush||+2|
|2000||R||July 31-Aug. 3||George W. Bush||+8|
|2000||D||Aug. 14-17||Al Gore||+8|
|1996||R||Aug. 12-15||Bob Dole||+3|
|1996||D||Aug. 26-29||Bill Clinton||+5|
|1992||D||July 13-16||Bill Clinton||+16|
|1992||R||Aug. 17-20||George H.W. Bush||+5|
|1988||D||July 18-21||Michael Dukakis||+7|
|1988||R||Aug. 15-18||George H.W. Bush||+6|
|1984||D||July 16-19||Walter Mondale||+9|
|1984||R||Aug. 20-23||Ronald Reagan||+4|
|1980||R||July 14-17||Ronald Reagan||+8|
|1980||D||Aug. 11-14||Jimmy Carter||+10|
|1976||D||July 12-15||Jimmy Carter||+9|
|1976||R||Aug. 16-19||Gerald Ford||+5|
|1972||D||July 10-13||George McGovern||0|
|1972||R||Aug. 21-23||Richard Nixon||+7|
|1968||R||Aug. 5-8||Richard Nixon||+5|
|1968||D||Aug. 26-29||Hubert Humphrey||+2|
But on the other hand, there’s a real question of how much the convention bounce matters anymore. As you can see in the table above, convention bounces have been getting smaller, which is likely a byproduct of how polarized our politics have become. There are just fewer swing voters, so it’s harder for a candidate to attract support outside of his or her core base of supporters.1 That said, conventions can still matter, as once you get past the volatile post-convention period, one party tends to have a lasting lead in the national polls (though not necessarily the party whose candidate received the biggest post-convention bounce).
This year, though, there’s a real question about what kind of bounce a virtual convention will produce. Democrats worry that their mostly virtual event may be unable to replicate the energizing spectacle of a traditional convention. And although Trump is pushing for a large in-person convention, there’s no guarantee this will have the desired effect, either.
The president’s Tulsa rally serves as a cautionary tale. The Trump campaign held it despite calls from public health officials to cancel it or hold it outside because of concerns about exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus in Oklahoma. Yet only a fraction — 6,200 people — filled the 19,000-seat arena, dashing the campaign’s hopes of a full house and prompting it to cancel a speech to supporters in an overflow area. The rally also resulted in underwhelming news coverage featuring images of listless attendees in a half-empty venue, which is not the kind of coverage a candidate in search of a post-convention polling bump wants.
Looking ahead to Jacksonville, it’s not hard to imagine similar problems arising. Florida’s coronavirus case load has spiked in recent days, prompting Jacksonville’s mayor to implement an indoor mask requirement — a move that is sure to frustrate the president, since he’s spoken out against wearing masks at the convention. We don’t know what the state of the health crisis will be in late August, but even if Florida’s numbers have improved some, holding a potential “superspreader” event probably won’t be received very positively. Just last week, Biden slammed the president for ignoring the crisis, and a sizable in-person crowd might play right into that attack if we find out that some attendees contracted the coronavirus at the convention. There’s also the possibility convention delegates might be particularly high-risk as they tend to be on the older side, and COVID-19 is more dangerous for older people.
Bottom line: The coveted post-convention polling bounce may not unfold as in previous years. The Trump campaign might be putting itself between a rock and a hard place. Smaller-than-expected attendance because of fears around the coronavirus could produce the sort of negative coverage the president saw after the Tulsa rally — pictures of empty seats and excuses for the small crowd, not to mention questions about why the campaign tried to host a big event in the first place. But if a large crowd materializes, it could still earn Trump negative headlines, especially if the convention turns into a dreaded superspreader event. We don’t know how this will play out, but the potential for blowback is high.