Do Campaign Visits Pay Off? Evidence from the 2016 Presidential Election

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa over the weekend was a reminder of how much his campaign values well-attended rallies.

— Trump campaigned more times in more states than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

— However, a regression analysis of the 2016 results does not show rallies having a significant impact on that election’s results.

— Campaigns may derive indirect benefits from rallies, though, such as voter contacts, press coverage, and donations. But there’s not much evidence to show that the number of rallies in a given state had an impact on the results.

Do campaign rallies matter?

Last Saturday, after a lengthy hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump held his first live campaign rally in Tulsa, OK. Holding a live campaign event with thousands of supporters gathered in an indoor arena in a safe Republican state in the midst of a pandemic was a controversial move. So was holding the event one day after the Juneteenth celebration of the liberation of Black slaves during the Civil War in a city in which many Black residents were killed in a white race riot in 1921.

As it turned out, attendance at the rally was far below what the Trump campaign was expecting — an estimated 6,000 or so supporters in an arena that holds 19,000. Nevertheless, the president and his top campaign strategists continue to believe that holding these live rallies is crucial to his chances of winning a second term in the White House.

The rallies, in the Trump campaign’s view, attract extensive local and national media coverage, energize Trump’s base, and stimulate donations. However, another important question is this:  Do these events actually influence the election results in the states in which they are held? In order to address this question, I decided to examine the impact of campaign visits on the results of the 2016 presidential election in the states.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing the national popular vote by narrowly defeating Hillary Clinton in several key swing states, including Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Following the election, there was considerable speculation that Trump’s victory was due in part to the fact that he spent more time than Clinton campaigning in some of these swing states, including Wisconsin, which Clinton did not visit once during the campaign.

Table 1: Number of days spent in swing states by Trump and Clinton during 2016 presidential campaign

State Clinton Trump
Arizona 1 4
Colorado 3 7
Florida 15 19
Iowa 4 6
Michigan 4 7
Minnesota 1 1
North Carolina 11 15
New Hampshire 4 9
Nevada 6 4
Ohio 15 17
Pennsylvania 15 14
Virginia 2 10
Wisconsin 0 5

Note: Tally includes Trump campaign stops after he clinched nomination (May 26, 2016) and Clinton campaign stops after she clinched nomination (June 7, 2016).

Source: ABC News

Table 1 displays data on the total number of campaign visits that each presidential candidate made to 13 swing states during the 2016 general election campaign. The table uses ABC News’ tally of campaign events by Trump and Clinton from the time each clinched their respective nominations — May 26 for Trump, June 7 for Clinton — through Election Day. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton campaigned in any other states, although they did visit other states for fundraisers. The data show that Trump made more visits to 10 of these 13 states during the campaign while Clinton made more visits to only two: Pennsylvania and Nevada. In all, Trump made 118 visits to these 13 states compared with only 81 visits for Clinton. He made five visits to Wisconsin to none for Clinton, and he made 10 visits to Virginia to only two for Clinton.

In order to estimate the impact that campaign visits had on the election results, I conducted a regression analysis of the results in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. I used the Democratic vote margin as the dependent variable and the relative number of campaign visits to each state along with the Democratic vote margin in the 2012 presidential election as independent variables. The results are displayed in Table 2.

Table 2: Regression analysis of Democratic vote margin in the states in 2016 presidential election

Independent Variable B Std. Error Beta t Sig.
Dmargin12 0.963 (.046) 0.952 21.56 0.001
CampVisits -0.123 (.577) -0.009 -0.21 N.S.
Constant -3.782 (1.121) -3.37 0.001

Source: Data compiled by author

The results in Table 2 show that the relative number of campaign trips to a state by Trump and Clinton had no effect on the results. In contrast, the 2012 results strongly predicted the 2016 results. These findings indicate that despite the divergent outcomes of the two elections, there was a high degree of consistency in the results across the states. Clinton did best in states that strongly supported Barack Obama in 2012, and Trump did best in states that strongly supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Of course, Trump outperformed Romney in a number of swing states, which is what allowed him to win the electoral vote. However, his performance relative to Romney was not affected by the number of events that he held in a state compared with Clinton.

Conclusions

With infection levels rising in many states and several Trump campaign staffers having tested positive for COVID-19, it is not clear how many more live rallies the Trump campaign will be able to conduct between now and Election Day. The Biden campaign currently has no plans to hold live campaign rallies. However, the findings reported in this article indicate that whether either campaign holds live rallies and whether one holds more rallies than the other will probably have little or no impact on the election results at the state level. Campaign events may have other benefits such as energizing supporters and stimulating donations, but in 2016 they did not appear to have any effect on how well candidates did in the states in which they were held.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist with Sabato’s Crystal Ball. His latest book, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, was released in 2018 by Yale University Press.