On Monday morning, former President Donald Trump emailed his millions of supporters, as he does regularly, to share a story about his appearance in Erie two days earlier.
“Trump draws another massive crowd in Erie, Pa.,” the headline from the Gateway Pundit read.
Known for pushing “a daily deluge of false, misleading or fake stories to a conservative audience eager to believe them,” as a Forbes contributor put it in 2021, the Gateway Pundit went a step further.
Accompanying its story is a photo of the arena crowd with the caption, “Trump sets arena crowd record in Erie, PA.”
On the other side of the political aisle, the left-wing, hyper-partisan Occupy Democrats website, which has received abysmal marks for its truthfulness from Poynter Institute’s Politifact, wrote that “Trump just got humiliated in Pennsylvania” for having a “ton of empty seats” at Erie Insurance Arena as he spoke. A photo of the empty seats accompanied the story.
So which is it? A “massive, arena crowd record” or a “humiliating” turnout in an arena where a “ton” of seats were left empty?
The answer is probably neither.
Here’s what we know, what we don’t and other important details that provide context:
Erie Events Executive Director Gus Pine said the Trump campaign had control over event registration and entry security and therefore it was “difficult” for Erie Events, which manages the venue, “to verify an exact count.” Pine, however, agreed with two Erie Insurance Arena ushers who provided a rough estimate of the crowd size, putting it at 4,500.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond when asked if it had an attendance figure of its own.
The capacity of the arena
That 4,500 figure is about half of what the arena holds when its capacity is maximized. For concerts, where there can be reserved seating or general admission floor tickets, the venue can hold about 9,000 spectators. For Erie Otters hockey games, Erie Insurance Arena can hold more than 6,800 people.
Pine said the venue was arranged for what amounted to a concert for Trump’s speech.
As the Erie Times-News observed, Trump left several sections of the arena vacant. Only a smattering of people sat in Sections 101, 201, 102, 202, 103, 203, 122, 222, 121, 221, 120, and 220 — some of them were entirely empty. Sections 204, 205, 206, 207, 219 and 218 were half-full at best.
Most of the floor seats were occupied, as were the sections of seats behind and to the left and right of where the stage was situated.
The caption on the Gateway Pundit photo is false. Perhaps Trump drew a record crowd when he last spoke at Erie Insurance Arena on Oct. 10, 2018, weeks before a critical midterm election. Then-Erie Bureau of Fire Chief Guy Santone estimated the 2018 rally attendance at about 9,000, a capacity crowd for the arena. Not only that, the Erie Times-News reported that as many as 3,000 additional supporters who couldn’t get into the arena watched the speech from a large screen on the front lawn.
When he spoke at the venue on Aug. 12, 2016, more than 8,000 people attended his rally, which was held just weeks after he accepted the GOP nomination in Cleveland.
Prior to July 29, Trump’s most recent stop in Erie was on the tarmac of Erie International Airport on Oct. 20, 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it may have been Trump’s largest audience in Erie. Thousands turned out to hear Trump speak, with Air Force Once as his backdrop, just two weeks before the Nov. 3 general election.
And even though the playlist ahead of Trump’s rally at Erie Insurance Arena included songs like “Candle in the Wind,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man,” Trump’s estimated crowd size Saturday doesn’t come close to replicating what the performer of those songs, Elton John, drew when he played the arena in 2013 (7,955) or 2000 (7,274). Nor would it match the crowd Barry Manilow drew in 1988 (6,039) or the audience for Cher in 2004 (5,857).
Trump’s appearance in Erie Saturday came early in the GOP primary for president, when a lot of voters haven’t tuned into the presidential campaign let alone chosen a candidate. And those who have followed the campaign might be pulling for someone else, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is a very distant second to Trump in most polls. It was Trump’s first visit to Erie with political opposition from within his own party.
Overall, the July 29 rally was Trump’s fourth in Erie. Perhaps the intrigue of seeing him speak has worn off for some. Maybe it was a forecast that called for high temperatures but delivered fog and rain instead.
Not yet committed
Professor Joe Morris, chairman of the Political Science Department at Mercyhurst University, suspects that despite Trump’s ability to draw large crowds, the former president might have an enthusiasm issue with some Republicans and independents now that he’s been indicted twice by federal grand juries for his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving the White House and his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, which led to a four-count indictment Tuesday.
Trump could soon be indicted by a grand jury in Georgia on election-related charges and he’s already been charged in New York for an alleged hush-money scandal involving an adult film actress and others.
Voters are split, he said, when it comes to a Trump-Biden rematch, according to most national polls. But in the Republican primary, some voters might not be ready for another four years of Trump.
“Independents might feel, and even many Republicans might feel, that Donald Trump might not be the best choice, and they’re not as firmly committed to his candidacy as they were, say, in 2016,” Morris said.
Recent polls, he said, suggest Trump, despite his sizable lead, might have an “enthusiasm problem.”
“There’s a large percentage of even Republicans who are not enthusiastic about voting for Donald Trump, but they will do it if Joe Biden is the alternative,” he said.
So, did Trump draw a “massive” crowd to Erie on July 29?
Not compared to past rallies, Morris said. But the businessman-turned-politician who’s been twice impeached and now is under indictment in three criminal investigations retains his “unique ability” to draw large crowds.
Could any other Republican or Democrat, including Biden, the sitting president, match Trump’s Erie Insurance Arena turnout?
No, says Morris.
“There’s not another Republican or Democrat that can do what he can do,” Morris said. “And 4,500, if that is the number, that’s still a good number, particularly with where we are in the election cycle. It’s really impressive. But, again, the objective political scientist in me looking at polling data suggests that he does have an enthusiasm problem, at least by Donald Trump’s standards.”
Matthew Rink can be reached at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: What Trump’s Erie rally crowd size says about enthusiasm for candidate