Since I remain horrified by President Trump, I was mildly amused by the recent fiasco in Tulsa.
The anemic crowd — 6,200 tickets scanned at an arena that seats 19,000 after more than a million tickets were requested — was good news for Tulsa and society as a whole, since it meant that fewer people might be exposed to the coronavirus that had infected six members of Trump’s campaign “advance team” setting up the event. But it was objectively bad news for the headliner, who nonetheless performed his greatest hits of victimhood and self-congratulation.
This is an Opinion
The humiliation of a crowd that really could have observed social distancing in the cavernous BOK Center was compounded by the fact that the puny turnout was a complete surprise to the campaign, which had bragged about the overwhelming response to the online offer of free tickets. The president and Vice President Pence were scheduled to make separate speeches to a massive overflow crowd, but that outdoors stage was quickly dismantled as reality dawned on the organizers.
There’s no reason you or I should have realized that teenaged users of the TikTok social media platform and “stans” — I had to Google that word for obsessed fans — of Korean pop music had been spreading the word of a glorious prank: Register for the free tickets but don’t show up. But there’s every reason a sophisticated presidential campaign should have known and even anticipated just that kind of trickery.
After all, Brad Parscale, the president’s campaign manager, got that job on the strength of his success as digital media director for Trump’s 2016 campaign. What’s more, experienced event organizers say this phony registration prank wasn’t the least bit original. It merely took advantage of the registration system that the Trump campaign had encouraged 1.8 million Twitter followers to use. The registration form was primarily a data-gathering tool, not unlike the emails and social media posts that invite us to “sign” nebulous petitions objecting to the most recent target of political outrage.
How many of the registrations came from sincere Trump fans who registered to show their support even though they didn’t plan to attend? How many came from TikTok kids who may not even be old enough to vote? It doesn’t matter. Regardless of how many people registered, attendees were seated on a first-come basis. Bottom line: Too few people came, and the campaign didn’t know that was about to happen.
No one doubts that there are hundreds of thousands of voters within easy driving distance of Tulsa who are eager for four more years of Trump, so what went wrong? At first I thought it was a breakdown in Parscale’s fearsome data-collection operation, but the more I read, the more persuaded I am that this was a failure of marketing. Specifically, this was a failure to recognize and respond to a change in the market for the product, which, in this case, is Trump rallies. The cheese has moved, just as it has for restaurants and movie theaters.
Even free tickets cost the customer time and effort. From 2015 to 2019, Trump’s showmanship was enough of a payoff to motivate supporters to fill venues (although overstating crowd size has been routine). Now the prospect of seeing Trump Live! is not enough, because the cost of the free ticket includes potential exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. Bragging about the expected crowd size — the number of potential virus carriers — undoubtedly discouraged fans who were on the bubble.
Even Americans who excuse Trump’s belated and muddled response to the coronavirus were not eager to be in close contact with strangers when they could — and record numbers did — experience the president’s rhetorical stylings from the comfort and safety of home. They want take-out and Netflix. But instead of enjoying vicariously the massive event that was promised, they were treated to a massive marketing miscalculation.
Oklahoma’s Electoral College votes aren’t in question, so an embarrassment there was an unforced error that will certainly be canonized as one of the classic blunders in modern political history. (The most famous? “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” for you stans of “The Princess Bride.”)
Some commentators say the registration prank did more harm than merely humiliate a politician who truly believed tens of thousands of people would risk illness to hear him complain about his political enemies. All those phony registrations may have devalued what should have been a goldmine of contact information for Republican-inclined voters so motivated that they would risk infection.
Did you know there’s an English word for schadenfreude? It’s epicaricacy.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.