TikTok teens and K-Pop stans didn’t cause President Trump’s campaign to have a dismal turnout for his Saturday rally in Tulsa after promises of a packed arena. The real cause should worry the president even more.
Barely 6,200 people showed up to a 19,000-person arena that Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale promised would be packed for the president's first live rally in months. Trump’s team had even planned for a huge overflow audience — but the outdoor stage went unused, and a planned appearance from Trump there was canceled.
K-Pop fans and viral TikTok posts encouraged people to prank the campaign with fake RSVPs, an effort the New York Times reported led to hundreds of thousands of fake reservations that caused the campaign to massively overestimate how many people would show up. Parscale has strongly disputed that, but his explanation might be even more worrisome for his team.
Both Trump and Parscale love to brag about the data-focused “Death Star” they’ve built for 2020, saying they’re using a sophisticated analytics-based model to target voters on their specific issues and drive them to turn out in droves for Trump in November. But it doesn’t take The Force to figure out that the Empire might have no clothes.
Parscale bragged publicly about that one million reservations number, and when the 19,000-capacity arena wound up two-thirds empty, various viral tweets claimed that the TikTok teens had "ruined" the rally. But those reservations didn’t block anyone else from coming.
Rule one in politics is to undersell and overdeliver. If a rally is going to have 5,000 people, campaign staff always make sure it’s going to be in a room that can only comfortably hold 4,000. They try to never let high expectations run away from reality, and spin even lackluster numbers to project strength.
The ‘Death Star’
Parscale must have bought into his campaign’s own bad data for the event. Otherwise, Trump’s advance team would never have set up an outdoor overflow stage where he was supposed to speak. He either accepted these numbers himself, didn’t check when lower-level staff shared them before publicly touting them, or intentionally misled his own staff (and his boss) about expectations — which might make sense given widespread reports that Parscale’s job was already in jeopardy as Trump has fallen farther behind Joe Biden in recent months.
Parscale has famously made millions working for Trump, much more than the average campaign manager, and there’s been rampant speculation about whether he’s more interested in helping Trump win reelection or in lining his own pockets.
Data and analytics experts in both parties say that any campaign worth its salt would have been checking those numbers against an actual voter file to make sure the voters were real and following up with the RSVP'd attendees to see if they were coming. Whether TikTok and K-Pop pranksters actually inflated those numbers or not, Trump’s team should have had a much better sense of how many people were actually going to attend.
“I think people liked the myth that teenagers could take down the Trump Death Star, but I would not be surprised that the Trump campaign was seeing those numbers and decided they didn’t need to do follow-up calls because their numbers were so good,” said Melissa Ryan, a former Democratic digital strategist who now works in countering the spread of online disinformation and extremism.
“If you’re doing campaign data, you should be able to realize when your system is getting gamed.”
“If you’re doing campaign data, you should be able to realize when your system is getting gamed. If you’re getting a flood of signups, if your first instinct is to announce it on Twitter rather than check the tires, that’s just incompetence,” Ryan continued.
In a Sunday statement, Parscale mocked reporters for buying into claims that the Tulsa rally had flopped because of pranks from TikTok and K-Pop fans, claiming they’d weeded out the “phony ticket requests” from those groups — before blaming the media for scaring supporters away.
“The fact is that a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of COVID and protesters, coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally,” he said in a statement. “MSNBC was among the outlets reporting that protesters even blocked entrances to the rally at times. For the media to now celebrate the fear that they helped create is disgusting, but typical. And it makes us wonder why we bother credentialing media for events when they don’t do their full jobs as professionals.”
But Parscale's explanation doesn’t add up. Multiple outlets have said there was no problem with protesters blocking access to the rally. And while there’s a strong chance that Trump’s older voter base was scared away by the threat of the coronavirus, that says a lot more about Trump’s insistence about doing an indoor, packed rally against the advice of his own health professionals. It’s impossible to know without seeing their data whether anything Parscale had to say is true. But he should have known his sky-high ticket registrations wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sold-out rally.
It’s almost beside the point whether armies of K-Pop fans and TikTok-using teen activists spammed Trump’s campaign with RSVPs, or if Trump’s campaign simply got a bunch of RSVPs from supporters who never planned to attend in the first place. Only Parscale and his team know what that actual data looks like.
This isn’t the first head-scratching move from the Trump campaign. They’ve spent gobs of money on online advertising, but so much of it has been targeted nationally and not at swing states that Democratic strategists have wondered whether they’re more interested in pure fundraising (that can help boost the consultants’ own bottom lines) than persuading the swing-state voters who will decide the election.
Another odd choice was a recent, substantial television ad buy in the Washington, D.C. market — an expensive move seemingly taken to reassure Trump that his campaign is fighting hard rather than to convince any swing-state voters to back the president.
One GOP strategist familiar with the Trump campaign said Parscale was a capable strategist in the past because he knew what he didn’t know, but that his ego had exploded after the 2016 campaign. The people who actually ran Trump’s vaunted 2016 digital operation were mostly from the highly controversial Cambridge Analytica. And it’s well-documented that Trump got a ton of online support from Russia, whose bots and trolls helped push conspiracy theories against Hillary Clinton.
“Up to now, Brad’s strength has been that he knows what he doesn’t know and then finds competent people to handle areas that are out of his expertise. He’s now being hindered by a combination of 1) overestimating his abilities and 2) trusting entrenched party hacks to handle areas in which they have even less understanding than he does,” warned the strategist.
And all of Parscale’s spin leaves open one simple question:
“If they didn’t buy it, then what the hell was he doing talking about it?” said John Hagner, a data analytics expert at the Democratic firm Clarity Campaigns. “This suggests that two emperors have no clothes. Trump isn’t the draw he thinks he is, and Parscale also doesn’t have the command over this stuff that he has been telling people internally that he has."
Cover: President Donald Trump supporters attend a campaign rally at the BOK Center, Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)