Think TikTok teens tanked Trump’s Tulsa turnout? That’s a theory being reported by outlets like CNN, The Guardian, and NBC News. In the run-up to President Donald Trump’s most recent rally, K-pop fans and teens on video-based social media site TikTok embarked on a campaign to reserve as many tickets as possible with zero intention of actually showing up. While this made for a cute story about internet culture and online youth activism, it downplayed multiple other telling reasons that could explain why such a hyped rally failed so spectacularly.
To understand the story, you must first come to terms with the moment. Pandemic be damned, Trump returned to the campaign trail over the weekend with a rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale spent the days leading up to the rally hyping the number of ticket requests the campaign received. Eight days out, it was 300,000 tickets; six days before the rally, that number had soared to 800,000; the following day, the campaign hit the 1 million ticket mark. The rally was supposed to help Trump escape the months-long funk brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests against police violence. It was meant to be a political reset button for a president in peril.
But when Saturday rolled around, far fewer than 1 million die-hard Trump supporters showed up. In fact, just around 6,200 people -- representing 0.62% of those who had supposedly registered for tickets -- actually turned up in person, according to the Tulsa Fire Department. Rather than filling the stadium with raucous rallygoers, Trump wasn’t even able to fill half of the 19,199-capacity arena. An outdoor stage that had been erected for Trump to address people unable to get into the BOK Center sat empty before being disassembled.
The dud of an event left experts scratching their heads. The New York Times reported on a campaign by K-Pop fans and teenage users on TikTok to convince others to request tickets to the event with no intention of showing up. The basic idea was that tickets for the event would be reserved, seats would remain empty, and Trump would end up speaking to an empty room.
“That means there’s going to be at least two empty spots,” said one user in a video explaining how to sign up.
These reports largely ignored that people have been using this tactic ever since Trump began running for president, and it’s never actually had a noticeable effect.
For one, there’s nothing new about these campaigns. In January 2016, The Hill published a piece about a group of then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supporters requesting tickets to a Trump rally in Sanders’ home state of Vermont, with one supporter writing, “I am just assuring that there are going to be two empty seats.”
Similar social media efforts took place throughout the 2016 campaign, each time with the goal of leaving empty seats. But as was the case both then and now, filling out the ticket request form does not actually reserve you a spot inside, as Trump’s rallies operate on a first-come, first-served basis. The Trump campaign will process an infinite number of ticket requests, so while the aim of people who register may be to ensure that there are empty seats in the arena, registering for tickets with the campaign will not actually make that happen.
It is possible that a massive flood of requests helped inflate the Trump campaign’s expectations for Tulsa, but given that this same exact tactic had been carried out many times over, it’s reasonable to think the campaign would have accounted for it. In fact, a later Politico report found that campaign staff had factored in that hundreds of thousands of requests would be from people with no plans to actually show up. What’s remarkable is that turnout at the rally was still considerably less than even the campaign’s “worst-case scenario.”
Politico’s post-mortem showed just how short the rally fell from expectations.
About 1.1 million people registered to attend, forcing aides to begin making plans to stage an added outdoor event. Aides knew the 1.1 million figure was inflated: After sorting through the sign-ups — a process that included looking at registrants' voting histories — they determined that about 300,000 were fake.
To winnow down the likely audience further, advisers estimated that only between 200,000 and 300,000 people lived within immediate driving distance. Worst-case scenario, they concluded, was an audience of about 60,000.
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump argued that the Trump campaign courted catastrophe by repeatedly hyping the supposed number of ticket requests received. Bump noted that campaigns typically undershoot their crowd estimates in public communications to manage expectations and give a sense of unexpected enthusiasm when more people turn up. What Parscale did was the opposite, publicly boasting numbers the campaign knew it wouldn’t actually attract.
If a campaign is expecting 1,000 people, it will claim that it’s expecting 500. It will reserve an event space that holds 800 people. It will put out enough seats that, shortly before the event begins, organizers have to put out more — explaining loudly enough for nearby reporters to hear about how the rush of interest made them change their plans. Everything is focused on underestimating what’s expected, which has the happy side effect of making it easier to clean up the mess should 1,000 people not show up.
Daily Show writer and producer Daniel Radosh suggested it’s possible that Parscale and the campaign’s intense promotion of the event and its registration numbers led to Trump’s own supporters registering as a “signifier of support” without any intention of actually attending, further inflating the registration numbers.
Either way, focusing on these efforts glosses over the actual likely takeaways from the event.
Perhaps a large contingent of Trump’s supporters are more concerned about the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic than Trump is, himself. That would certainly be welcome news to people who care about public health.
Another possibility is that Trump simply can’t draw crowds the way he used to. While 78% of Republicans still approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic response, that support has been dipping in recent months. Additionally, a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute shows a decline in favorability among key components of his base.
Add Parscale’s hubris and inability to manage expectations, and it’s unclear why journalists and others in media seem willing to throw the campaign a lifeline by giving them a target to scapegoat (which the campaign, oddly, hasn’t taken).
News organizations should give us a clear sense of what happened in cases like these, even if it means digging beyond entertaining stories about TikTok teens and K-pop superfans. Social media activism is real activism and shouldn’t simply be brushed off as trolling, but it’s crucial that journalists report on the current moment with clarity and accuracy.