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The Evolution of Campaign Rallies

In normal times, voters are better served by hearing candidates answer questions rather than read repetitive speeches off teleprompters, writes Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro.

November 3, 2020
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

When 2020 began, it would have been impossible to believe that traditional campaign rallies would ever become imperiled.

Democrats Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren all routinely filled high-school gyms and town meeting halls in Iowa and New Hampshire. And Donald Trump derived psychological sustenance from his raucous, fact-free rallies, which he seemed to enjoy even more than his endless rounds of presidential golf. 

Joe Biden, in contrast, never drew crowds even during the early primaries. I joked before the Iowa caucuses that reporters never had to worry about parking at Biden events. Even in South Carolina, where Biden swept the February 29 primary and soon afterwards became the de facto nominee, the former vice president had problems attracting 300 people to a Charleston rally.

Then came the pandemic.

Biden prudently stayed off the campaign trail, ignoring jeers from Republicans that he was hiding in his basement. Nervous Democrats pressed Biden to prematurely resume traveling. And eventually Biden began holding small, socially distanced indoor campaign events and outdoor drive-in rallies with a few hundred cars.

If the polls are right and Biden wins the election, he will become the first president since the 19th century who never addressed a vast partisan crowd cheering his name. Even during his successful “front-porch campaign” in 1896, William McKinley gave as many as 16 speeches a day to delegations of Republican stalwarts who gathered on the candidate’s front lawn in Canton, Ohio.

Trump, to be sure, is campaigning as if Covid-19 never existed, scheduling 14 mass rallies for the final three days of the campaign. Trump campaign events, featuring mask-less throngs pressed closely together in airport hangars, appear to be linked to the spread of the virus, according to a USA Today analysis.

A Biden victory may prompt a far-reaching re-examination of how you run for president in the 21st century. Even after (knock on wood) the pandemic fades, there will be serious questions about how much in-person hoopla is required in the era of social media and constant live feeds from the campaigns.

As a traditionalist, I hate to see the waning of the mass campaign rally. There are voters across the United States who are still bragging that they personally cheered for Ronald Reagan in 1980 or for Barack Obama in 2008. I know because I vividly recall waving a sign for John F. Kennedy at the Bridgeport, Connecticut, railroad station in the run-up to the 1960 election.

When candidates campaign in the early primary states, they have an intense sense of place and usually pause to answer voter questions, sometimes (as in Biden’s case in early 2020) for as long as 45 minutes. But in a normal fall campaign, the non-stop travel by candidates reduces all of America to a blur of airports and rally sites. A C-SPAN camera recently caught Kamala Harris asking staffers, ”Am I in Cleveland?”

I grew up with the romance JFK campaign as portrayed by Theodore White in The Making of the President 1960, the most influential campaign book in history. And I caught a flavor of it as Time magazine’s reporter on the Bill Clinton plane in the final hours of the 1992 race. There is a poetry in seeing a candidate — with a raspy voice and reeling from fatigue — appealing for that last vote as the campaign hits the finish line.

But things changed in 2000 with two disciplined candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, fearful of the press and reluctant to utter a word that had not been vetted by staffers. I began to wonder what I was doing as a reporter (and, by implication, a proxy for the voters) flying around the country to watch Bush and Gore read speeches word-for-word off teleprompters.

It wasn’t just me. Amy Chozick spent 577 days chronicling Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for the New York Times. As she recounts in her campaign memoir, Chasing Hillary, Chozick never got an interview with the candidate and spent large portions of her time defending herself from attacks on her reporting by Clinton’s male press aides, whom she describes as “The Guys.”

This is a vast country — and no presidential candidate wants to be mocked for not venturing outside his or her natural environment in Washington or elsewhere along the East Coast. But there is also a charade inherent in racing around the country to utter the exact same words that could be broadcast on television from Washington or Wilmington or the White House.

Maybe in 2024 or beyond, the two political parties could get together and open up a theme park called “Campaign Land” somewhere in the Washington area. It would be akin to   an old-fashioned Hollywood back lot, but for politics. There would be pastoral farm scenes, gritty urban locales, middle-class suburbs, and patriotic backdrops like replicas of Mount Rushmore and the State of Liberty. A large permanent staff of extras would guarantee that candidates never again need to worry about attracting rapturous crowds.

This notion is, of course, fanciful. But the reality is that in normal times, voters are better served by hearing candidates answer questions rather than read repetitive speeches off teleprompters. That may be a lasting lesson of the strange, disembodied 2020 campaign.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.