The electric stadium and arena rallies that helped propel President Donald Trump to victory four years ago have been grounded this campaign season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Trump supporters have been gathering by the thousands in bass boats, pontoons, and yachts on rivers, lakes, and oceans nationwide to support the incumbent president during events sometimes dubbed “Trumptillas.” The so-called boat parades have been promoted online as “peaceful” and “patriotic” and a way to be socially distanced while embracing Trump’s re-election campaign. The Trump team has embraced the impressive visuals of boaters parading with flags with pictures and videos shared on social media accompanied by hashtags that suggest the large turnouts will equate to a landslide victory on November 3.
In Alabama, pro-Trump boat parades have occurred this summer at Lewis Smith Lake in Cullman County, Lake Tuscaloosa, and Lake Harding at the Florida-Georgia state line. Thousands of boats have assembled for similar events in Orange Beach. A large gathering of boaters, from Dauphin Island to Pensacola, paraded in the Perdido Pass on July 5, to show their support for Trump and other GOP candidates.
The events are also becoming a campaign opportunity for local candidates. Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, who is the GOP nominee for Alabama’s 1st congressional district seat, will attend a similar parade Sunday in Orange Beach. Former state Senator Bill Hightower attended the July 5 parade ahead of losing the July 14 Republican runoff contest to Carl. Republican Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville rode in the lead boat during that same parade but is not scheduled to be at Sunday’s event.
“Campaigning in boat parades is a great opportunity for candidates, supporters, voters, families and friends to enjoy time together while spreading Republican policy,” said Terry Lathan, chairwoman with the Alabama Republican Party.
Bob Oldendick, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, said the boat parades are occurring more in the “background rhythm of a campaign and are not typically important events” that generate news attention unless something unusual occurs such as an extremely large crowd attending, or a surprisingly small turnout.
“Such parades do give people an opportunity to show their support for the president and during the pandemic they provide for a ‘large gathering’ when in-person events are largely restricted,” said Oldendick. “The timing of the event – during Labor Day weekend – is designed to maximize the opportunity for Trump supporters to participate and attendance may be swelled by casual boaters who are there more to enjoy a recreational weekend.”
Well-attended boat parades in Alabama are occurring in backdrop of a deep red state where Trump won the 2016 presidential contest by more than 27 percentage points. The president is considered a safe bet to win Alabama in November, and Tuberville is leading polls in his quest to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who is considered the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbent this November.
But will the floating pro-Trump events matter in the nationwide presidential contest come November? The parades are often attended by entrenched Trump supporters, and some are occurring in reliably red states like South Carolina.
The president, despite the swell of boat parades in his honor, continues to trail former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. According to the website FiveThirtyEight.com, Biden holds a 7.2% lead over Trump in its averaging of national polling following the political conventions last month.
“The short answer is that I don’t know and I’m not sure that anyone really knows the for sure about the impact of a single type of campaign event like (boat parades),” said Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political sciences at the University of Buffalo and an expert on political communication and campaigns. “Collectively, however, we know that campaigns matter. We have evidence that other types of campaign activities (e.g., TV ads, voter contacts, campaign appearances) certainly can persuade and mobilize voters, so it stands to reason that any type of event that brings (positive) attention to a candidate and makes people excited about casting a ballot for that candidate can have an effect at the margins.”
From a political perspective, the most effective boat parades could be occurring in some of the boat-rich states like Wisconsin and Michigan. Those two states – along with Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida – are among the so-called “swing states” where Trump and Biden are vying for voters in tight electoral contests.
A “Trumptilla,” for instance, is scheduled for Saturday near Detroit. Wisconsin and Michigan rank among the top 10 states in the U.S. for boat registrations.
Florida leads the nation in the number of boat registrations, and it is the state where the first Trump boat parades occurred in May. The initial parade was organized by Carlos Gavidia, and it ventured from Jupiter to the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. Gavidia will, once again, lead another Trump boat parade on Labor Day despite being arrested and jailed on Tuesday on accusations that he used anti-Semitic language and sent a threatening text message to a Florida resident.
Democrats argue that the boat parades are also attended by boaters parading incendiary images, like the Confederate flag.
“Every time I see a boat with a Trump flag on it, there is one with a Confederate flag in a line of sight and there are a lot of Confederate flags in these boat parades,” said Wade Perry, executive director with the Alabama Democratic Party.
He added, “while they are playing on their daddy’s boats and waving their Confederate flags, we are working with real people on things like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”
Republicans counter that Democrats are “out-of-touch” with Alabama voters, which includes boaters.
“There is no doubt that the massive Trump boat parades are an indication of deep enthusiasm for the Trump/Pence ticket,” said Lathan, the state party chairwoman. “It takes a lot of time and energy to plan these events. Participants are showing up in masses. There is no Joe Biden or Doug Jones excitement in Alabama. Their ship is anchored in left-wing radical politics that Alabamians will continue to throw overboard on November 3.”
Michael Hoyt, chairman with the Baldwin County Republican Party, said that Perry and other Democratic leaders should address the “riots and looting in Democratic-controlled cities and states” instead of weighing in on “peaceful boat parades.”
Hoyt said that typically during this part of a campaign season, election rallies are occurring for Senate and congressional candidates at venues around Alabama, but he noted that “those are off-limits” as the country continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I do think this is a way for folks who can get together in a socially distanced manner to come out in large numbers and still have fellowship and show support for the president.
Oldendick, at the University of South Carolina, said the boat parades are simply that: Events to show support for a politician.
“And the campaigns will use any such event to their advantage, given how campaigns have had to adjust due to the coronavirus,” he said. “But their impact on the (overall) outcome is minimal.”