Trump is Considering Hosting Campaign Events at Drive-In Theaters, How Effective Would That Be?

President Donald Trump loves his rallies; big crowds full of spectacle and  fanfare where he can go on and on to thunderous applause. He’s continued doing them since his election, keeping the momentum alive and his crowd-roiling skills sharp for his reelection campaign. But, with the coronavirus crisis in 2020, large assemblies such as Trump rallies are untenable, and the ever-present candidate Trump has his eyes on how to keep his base engaged.

It started with the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings, a near-daily occurrence in which Trump and his advisers would hold something resembling a press conference (a rarity in the Trump White House) to drum up coverage, take questions, and respond to the issues at the top of the president’s mind. These briefings were wound down at about the same point they began to appear as a liability — most notably after Trump “suggested that people might be able to inject household cleaning items or disinfectants to deter the coronavirus.”1Trump has since claimed that remark was “sarcastic” in nature. Then Trump resumed embarking on his official travels in response to the crisis by venturing to convenient swing states. These have also given him more opportunities to do his favored “chopper talks” where the president, on his way to or from somewhere aboard Marine One, will briefly drop by the press gaggle and make comments over a roaring helicopter engine.

At some point in late April and early May, as Trump planned on suspending the Coronavirus Task Force briefings and was beginning to resume traveling to swing states for not-quite-campaign events, it emerged that Trump advisers had been brainstorming an alternative to rallies for the coronavirus era. Some way by which he could engage his large groups of supporters, rile them up, and show up his rival, Joe Biden, who has been more or less restricted to campaigning from his basement. According to reports, one of the most popular ways they suggested was to utilize drive-in movie theaters. Speaking on the logistics, The Daily Beast reported that “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,” which sounds like a decent compromise to maintain both social distancing and in-person (though smaller crowd) events.

This begs the question, how effective would these be in substituting Trump campaign events in key swing states? To find out I created a metric based on the number of available drive-in movie theaters per swing state electoral vote, in order to calculate which states this would proportionally benefit Trump more in. First, to be generous, I took swing state as any state that the consensus race ratings took to be anything other than “safe”. This is 16 states and two independently-voting districts in total, representing a combined 230 electoral votes.2To be specific, the states included are: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin. Plus the Maine 2nd Congressional District and Nebraska 2nd Congressional District, both of which are considered swing districts and cast electoral votes independently from the state totals. Note that this intentionally counts several of the theaters in Maine twice, once for the at large vote (2 electoral votes), and once more for the theaters specifically within the 2nd Congressional District (1 electoral vote). Then, using statistics provided by the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association,3I reached out to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association several times to clarify some data on their site and inform them I was using their data, as well as to ask for any thoughts but did not hear back. I built out a list of the number of drive-in theaters (not screens, mind you, as, per the reported plan, Trump would appear in person to a crowd of cars at one screen at one theater) in all potentially competitive states. Then I divided the number of drive-in theaters by each state’s number of electoral votes to determine the relative electoral strength a state has in… well, having drive-in theaters.

State Electoral Votes Drive-In Theaters Theaters per Electoral Vote
Arizona 11 1 0.09
Colorado 9 7 0.78
Florida 29 7 0.24
Georgia 16 5 0.31
Iowa 6 4 0.67
Maine 2 7 3.5
Maine-2nd 1 4 4
Michigan 16 9 0.56
Minnesota 10 6 0.6
Nebraska-2nd 1 0 0
Nevada 6 2 0.33
New Hampshire 4 3 0.75
New Mexico 5 2 0.4
North Carolina 15 5 0.33
Ohio 18 24 1.33
Pennsylvania 20 28 1.4
Texas 38 12 0.32
Virginia 13 6 0.46
Wisconsin 10 8 0.8

The higher the theaters per electoral vote, the more relative campaign strength there is in using the drive-in theater campaign strategy in a given state. So, in a state like Pennsylvania, which has 28 drive-in theaters and 20 electoral votes, Trump has ample opportunity to campaign in many places adjusted for electoral votes. Whereas a state like Texas, while quite a bit larger than Pennsylvania, has fewer campaign options because it only has 12 drive-in theaters, so it would be less strong compared to many other swing states if using this strategy.

An advantage in using this strategy is that, on average, these swing states and districts actually have a higher score overall after adjusting for electoral votes, at 0.89, than the average of all states, at 0.75. Which is to say, there are more venues per electoral vote in which to capitalize on this strategy. So, using the national average theater per electoral vote of 0.75, we can roughly estimate the effectiveness over the national average in utilizing this strategy for the swing states in districts.

Here you can see that this strategy is strongest in the midwest and in Maine, which punches far above its weight in drive-in theaters adjusted for its electoral size. So employing this strategy in states like Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin is compelling relative to states like Florida, Arizona, and Georgia. And, if the campaign were desperate to get just the one electoral vote available in Maine’s Second Congressional District, there is ample opportunity with four theaters to campaign at. These count towards the Maine at-large electoral votes as well, so there’s a lot of opportunity in Maine in general. 

This midwestern play is also the easiest path for Biden to defeat Trump in the fall, so having access to a wide array of theaters in these states is beneficial for both campaigns in general. Unfortunately for the strategy’s down-ballot implications, the midwestern states where this campaign method has the most opportunity are also those with no senator up for election this cycle. Nevertheless, the 2020 campaigns will need to innovate, as many campaigns before them did, and this may be a captivating, novel, and pleasantly nostalgic way to do that; perfect for a campaign aiming to take America back to its self-perceived heyday.