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It’s past time to retire covering rallies as signs of momentum

A crowd in the Bronx does not mean New York is shifting toward Trump

Donald Trump holds a presidential campaign rally in Crotona Park on May 23 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Donald Trump holds a presidential campaign rally in Crotona Park on May 23 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Andrea Renault/Star Max/GC Images/Getty Images)

Here we go again. Apparently the media can’t quit reporting on rallies or accurately convey their relevance to the campaign. If we hadn’t learned, or had forgotten, when it comes to campaign rallies, size doesn’t matter, including Donald Trump’s recent event in the Bronx. 

The lesson should have been apparent after the 2020 election when Trump ignored COVID-19 protocols in the prevaccine era to meet with his masses while Joe Biden avoided crowds and somehow won the election.

Yet here we are, four years later, fawning over a Trump campaign event in New York City. 

Unsurprisingly, the Fox News headline was glowing — “Trump vows to ‘save’ deep-blue New York City in massive, historic Bronx rally” — and the article led with the Trump campaign’s crowd estimate of 25,000 supporters. The same 25,000-30,000 estimate made it to Fox News’ on-air chatter as well.

Other mainstream news outlets often began their stories with positive coverage and buried important context that might have downplayed the event. For example, according to Axios’ “Why it matters: The unusual sight of Trump speaking to several thousand people in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in deep blue New York is a sign of the realignment happening between the two parties.”

While the article didn’t amplify the campaign’s attendance figures, it overstated the importance of the crowd and the rally. Even though outside estimates pinned the crowd at closer to 3,500 or 4,000, even 25,000 isn’t that impressive considering the context.

Yes, the Bronx is heavily Democratic (Biden received 83.5 percent in 2020), and New York City is “a town not necessarily known for its kindness to Republicans,” as Fox described it. But the Big Apple is home to a lot of Trump supporters. 

Exactly 67,740 Bronx residents voted for Trump in 2020, according to the city’s board of elections. That was only good for 16 percent in the borough, but it’s not an insignificant amount of people. (That’s more than half the population of West Palm Beach, Fla.) So it’s not surprising that Trump could get a few thousand people from within 57 square miles to show up at a rally.

The rally size is less significant when you realize that Trump received 691,682 votes across the five boroughs of New York City, including Brooklyn (202,772 votes), Manhattan (85,185), Queens (212,665) and Staten Island (123,320). Again, that was only good for 23 percent of the vote in the nation’s largest city (more than 8 million residents), but it’s a large pool of supporters to draw from for a campaign event.

In fact, Trump received more votes in New York City than he did in 15 states, including Alaska (189,951), Wyoming (193,559), North Dakota (235,751), South Dakota (261,043), Montana (343,602), West Virginia (545,382), Idaho (554,119) and Nebraska (556,846). Would Trump get the same coverage if he had a rally with a few thousand people in any of those states?

Even at the very generous estimate of 25,000 rally attendees, that would account for less than 4 percent of his support in the 2020 election. “Trump got 3.6 percent of his supporters in a city to come to a rally” doesn’t have quite the same splash. 

That’s assuming rallygoers were even New York City residents. Trump received more than 3.2 million votes in New York state in 2020. Nationwide, 74.2 million people voted for Trump. Surely a few thousand of them have access to planes, trains and automobiles that could get them to the Bronx for a rally, particularly one that thumbs its nose at Democrats and the media for portraying Trump and the Republican Party as racists. 

It’s ironic that a Fox News article devoted space to making fun of liberal commentators trying to dismiss the rally, including Democratic claims that the crowd was not from the Bronx, when the original Fox article about the rally said “a number of attendees traveled from as far as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut.”

To be clear, Trump currently has the advantage over Biden in the presidential race when looking at the battleground states, and Trump appears to be gaining ground among some key Democratic constituencies. The presumptive GOP nominee is overperforming among Black voters by 28 points and Hispanic voters by 19 points when comparing the 2020 results to 2024 polls, according to calculations by Democratic former pollster Adam Carlson. Those are substantive, quantitative ways of analyzing the state of race, rather than the size of a campaign rally, no matter where it takes place. 

Including qualifying statements deep down in reports, such as Trump trying to connect with minorities by playing up his status as a defendant, doesn’t make up for providing coverage that feeds into one of the Trump campaign’s main goals: attracting attention.

Once again, the Trump campaign masterfully played the media in an attempt to cultivate a bandwagon effect. Axios, Politico, CNN, NBC News, The New York Times, CBS News, The Associated Press, ABC News and the PBS NewsHour all featured the rally. 

Sharing photos or showing video of people in crowds, waiting in line to get into a rally or standing roadside along a barricade just to catch a glimpse of Trump’s motorcade are all meant to convey a sense of momentum, even though they usually only show dozens, hundreds or maybe a couple thousand people in a universe of approximately 150 million voters.

The campaign wants to project a sense that Trump represents a growing majority, even though he didn’t win a majority in 2016 (46.1 percent) or in 2020 (46.8 percent) and isn’t polling close to a majority now (41.4 percent), according to the FiveThirtyEight national average.

Rallies are tempting because they are tangible. They are events with people and pictures, which are important elements of good journalism. But rallies are terrible predictors of the future and should be given less attention.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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