President Donald Trump is thirsting to hold campaign rallies again. And among his campaign and White House advisers, a possible solution has been discussed that could allow for such MAGA gatherings even in the midst of a global pandemic: the mostly defunct, rural tradition of the drive-in movie theater.
According to three people familiar with the preliminary discussions, Trump aides and operatives have spent weeks exploring alternatives to the standard Trump 2020 rally that could allow for social distancing while still allowing for a modest number of attendees. Much of the focus has been on sprawling outdoor venues, such as large fields. And one of the top ideas for this coronavirus-era workaround that is currently being floated would rely on repurposing drive-ins for a political gathering.
Under such a scenario, Trump-loving attendees would roll up in their cars and be required to mostly remain in their respective vehicles as the president addressed them in-person from the outdoor stage.
One of the three sources, a senior administration official, said they were planning on pitching it directly to President Trump as early as next week. It is not clear if Trump, who has made no secret about his love of packed arenas, has privately weighed in on the drive-in theater idea yet. But he’s indicated that he wants to get back on the road as soon as possible.
People close to Trump and within his reelection effort hope that some version of a larger, non-virtual campaign event where the president is the headliner can happen during the warmer summer months, as the administration continues on its charge to relax federal guidelines and encourage the “opening” of states and the U.S. economy. However, those involved acknowledge that they are at the mercy of the virus, given the prevalent concerns over public safety and health, a still rising death toll, and projections that the coronavirus could have a reemergence if social distancing ends too quickly.
Outside the West Wing and the campaign, the drive-in idea appears to be picking up some steam.
“President Trump is a great campaigner. Finding new ways for him to connect directly with voters will be very beneficial to his campaign. Selecting drive-in theaters as a rally location makes perfect sense,” said Ed Brookover, who served as a senior Trump adviser during the 2016 race.
While drive-in theaters—which have seen a resurgence during coronavirus—would allow Trump the ability to draw a crowd with a reduced chance of the gathering becoming a coronavirus hotspot, there are some downsides. For starters, there aren’t all that many theaters left in the country.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association’s recent data, there were 305 drive-in theaters in the United States, with 549 screens. Some of those theaters are in swing states—Pennsylvania has 45 and Ohio has 44, per the association’s numbers from late 2019—but they are not often centrally located. And at capacity, certain drive-ins can fit approximately 1,000 cars, though some of these venues have scaled back the allowed max to the low hundreds as coronavirus has spread.
Then there is the question of how to make it work logistically. How would you handle merchandising, food, and availability of restrooms safely? What happens if an attendee at one of the events gets overzealous honking his or her own horn? What happens if cars run out of battery? How would the Secret Service and security check vehicles and ensure the safety of the president?
As it becomes clearer that the 2020 election will be overwhelmed by coronavirus, these types of questions are increasingly being explored by campaign brass. That’s particularly true among the Trump team, which has to accomodate a president who has made clear that an effort to jump-start the savaged American economy and impose a sense of returned normalcy this year is his top priority, even as much of the data his own White House is reviewing suggests that doing so too quickly could result in disaster during this election year.
Recent surveys, in both public and internal Team Trump data, consistently show the president trailing presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden, including in critical states that could make or break his reelection prospects. Various Trump associates and advisers had warned him that his performance, particularly the on-camera press briefings that he did in absence of events such as 2020 rallies, were dragging down his poll numbers and benefiting former Vice President Biden.
“This coronavirus will pass and the president is looking forward to getting back out on the campaign trail and holding rallies,” the Trump campaign’s communications director Tim Murtaugh said last month. Murtaugh also told Trump supporters at the time that “we will get back to those rallies. Never fear, the president is certain that we're going to be back out there speaking directly to the American people.”