Trump team looks to prevent a Tulsa-style debacle in JacksonvilleJune 25, 2020
President Donald Trump wasn’t the only one thrown off course by a lower-than-expected turnout at his comeback rally in Tulsa.
Republican officials and Trump campaign aides, some of whom have been working since last year to plan the party’s convention festivities, said the disappointing event last weekend imparted a critical lesson as they look ahead to Jacksonville, where Trump will deliver his acceptance speech as the GOP’s presidential nominee in late August: Learn to manage expectations and plan for trouble.
“The last thing we want to do is over-promise and under-deliver,” said an adviser to the Trump campaign. “Obviously we wish Tulsa had not turned out the way it did, but it was a useful reminder of what we hope to avoid next time.”
The debacle that unfolded in Oklahoma, where sparse crowds forced Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to cancel pre-rally appearances and ignited an unpleasant news cycle for Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, has raised the stakes for the Jacksonville convention, where hundreds of Republican delegates, party leaders and MAGA devotees will send Trump off to battle against his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
Four officials involved with the planning said they feel additional pressure to ensure the president is pleased with the format of the convention, and with its turnout, after witnessing his displeasure with the partially empty arena in Tulsa.
What’s more, a recent surge of Covid-19 cases in Florida is threatening to complicate the onerous planning process organizers are already facing after moving most convention programming — including Trump’s primetime renomination speech — from Charlotte to Northeast Florida due to coronavirus restrictions on large social gatherings in North Carolina. Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, recently saw its highest one-day increase in coronavirus cases since the global pandemic began.
Trump aides and Republican officials are putting extra attention now on conditions on the ground in Florida, including a surge in coronavirus cases across the state and the risk of new restrictions on public gatherings in the coming weeks. They’re evaluating more scenarios that could wreck existing plans and force changes over the next two months, in order to avoid surprisingly low turnout or other embarrassing political fallout right after Democrats hold their convention with a far more cautious approach.
The sudden spike in confirmed cases has heightened the concerns among residents of Florida’s most populous city about hosting convention activities that could draw in thousands of people from outside the state. Seventy-one percent of voters in Duval County said they are very or somewhat worried about Covid-19 transmissions occurring at the GOP convention, according to a University of North Florida-Public Opinion Research Lab poll released Wednesday. Another 61 percent indicated they are concerned about protests during the event, while 66 percent agreed the convention is likely to infuse Jacksonville’s economy with significant cash.
Before the president rallied in Tulsa last weekend, local health officials warned residents who are more vulnerable to health complications if they contract the novel coronavirus to stay home. Meanwhile, campaign officials asked rally attendees to sign a liability waiver to prevent lawsuits against the host venue and Trump’s reelection operation if they became ill with the deadly virus.
A GOP official said it’s possible GOP convention attendees will be asked to sign a similar disclaimer before arriving at the 15,000-person VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, though this person stressed that nothing has been decided yet and planning is still in an early stage.
“There will be safety precautions in place that will be adapted based on the situation at the time of the event,” added a RNC spokesperson. “These include but are not limited to temperature checks, available PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], aggressive sanitizing protocols, available Covid-19 testing, and regular phone calls and coordination with federal, state and local health officials.”
The convention is also likely to be treated as a National Special Security Event, resulting in a wide perimeter around the site itself and an outsized presence of local and federal law enforcement officials. Organizers are expecting demonstrations outside the convention, particularly as widespread anti-racism protests continue to grip the nation, but do not anticipate that protesters will interfere with the event itself — a claim Trump campaign officials made in the aftermath of the president’s visit to Oklahoma to explain away the underwhelming crowd size.
“Sadly, protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevent people from entering the rally,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, said in a statement following the Tulsa rally. The campaign didn’t say how many people were turned away; reporters on the ground disputed that protests at the entries prevented rallygoers from ultimately entering.
One Trump campaign official expressed relief that the Republican National Committee — as well as a nonpartisan host committee in Jacksonville — is handling most logistics for the convention so that the president’s reelection team will be “spared” if the event does not go as planned, or if it fails to quench Trump’s craving for a gigantic crowd of adoring supporters.
After being told 1 million people requested tickets for the Saturday night rally in Tulsa, only to be greeted by a crowd that the Tulsa Fire Department estimated at 6,200, Trump spent his flight back to Washington grilling aides about the humiliating turn of events.
The Trump campaign official said the president’s frustration with the crowd size erased any positive feelings he might have had about simply being back in front of a crowd after a three-month hiatus from the campaign trail.
“It would be a huge blow to morale if something goes wrong and we get blamed again, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because we aren’t the ones in charge here,” the official said, noting that the campaign’s primary role is to select the lineup of speakers at the convention, which will run from Aug. 24-27.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has described the planning for Jacksonville as “a massive undertaking” since the party spent three years operating under the impression that its 2020 convention would occur in Charlotte — not six hours south in a different state. A person involved with the host committee said the team has been meeting multiple times a week — sometimes up to 12 hours a day – and is on track to ensure the convention is “a healthy, safe and exciting event.”
The convention is set to take place just one month before Trump and Biden will square off in the first of three general election debates, and it comes as the president currently struggles to revamp his 2020 message and recover lost ground in swing-state polls.
In Florida, Biden holds a 6.2 percentage-point lead over the president, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average — up four points from the lead former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton held at this point in 2016 before she lost the state to Trump in November.
Both candidates are expected to use their party’s nominating conventions as launchpads for the general election contest, which has been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest caused by the police-involved death of George Floyd.
For Trump in particular, aides hope the convention will provide a much-needed boost after one of the most difficult stretches of his presidency.
“This will be a turning point for the president’s campaign and the start of an aggressive schedule just like you saw in 2016,” said the Trump campaign adviser.
The president hopes to be on the road at least four days a week beginning in late August, this person said, even though his team is still deciding whether each stop will involve a large-scale rally.