Compared with recent presidents, Trump does not like to travel — except when he’s campaigning

Jan 25 '19
President Trump exits  Marine One as he returns to the White House on Dec. 7 after speaking at the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference in Kansas City, Mo. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

As global elites met this week in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, President Trump stayed put in Washington, having canceled his trip to avoid the troubling optics of traveling while the government is shuttered.

Still, after his second year in office, the record is clear. Compared with recent presidents, Trump does not like to travel. In addition to a dearth of international trips, Trump logged fewer domestic trips this past year than his four predecessors (Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush) did during their presidencies’ second year. And when Trump did leave the White House, the destinations appeared to be with campaigning in mind.

Let’s take a closer look.

This is how we did our research 

To calculate the frequency of presidential travel, we relied on the “Compilation of Presidential Documents” (part of the Federal Register) and successive editions of the Public Papers of the Presidents. We counted the number of trips each president took outside of Washington during his first two years in office. To confirm trips or round out details about a president’s travels, we also used relevant news reports.

We count any presidential appearances that happen on the same day as different trips. For instance, one day may include visits to Havelock and New Bern, N.C., to meet with local officials about hurricane recovery. We count these as two separate trips because the day includes public events in two distinct cities. We exclude presidential vacations and fundraisers. However, if the president makes a public appearance while staying at a vacation home, we count such events as trips. Our goal is to capture the “public” outreach side of the presidency, an aspect of the presidency that has been expanding dramatically since the Nixon administration.

Here’s what we found.

1. Trump appears to enjoy being in the White House

In his second year in office, Trump took 97 trips outside of Washington. As you can see in the figure below, Trump traveled substantially less than his immediate predecessors. In fact, Trump’s second-year travel looks closest to George H.W. Bush’s forays more than a quarter-century ago.


The dotted line shows a steady increase in first-term second-year presidential travel going back to the Nixon administration — arguably the dawn of the modern “public presidency.” If we were to extrapolate from past presidential travel (Nixon to Obama), we would expect Trump to have taken 168 work-related trips. Of course, this trend rests on just a small sample of past presidents, so there’s some uncertainty around that forecast. Even so, Trump’s 97 domestic trips is remarkably low in comparison.

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2. Like past presidents, Trump ventures out to see his base

Of Trump’s 97 total second-year trips, roughly half were connected to a campaign — meaning that he traveled to rally his base, to support congressional Republicans before the midterm elections, or both. What’s more, during 90 percent of these campaign trips, he visited red states — much as he did in his first year in office, when he also favored visiting states that he had won in 2016.

True, at some of these campaign stops, the president would also engage in issue discussions, including a roundtable on protecting American workers or criminal justice reform. But those were usually followed by campaign-style rallies at a large venue, as when Trump attended a roundtable event with his supporters and then appeared at a rally for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in October.

That said, recent presidents have shared Trump’s campaign focus before midterm elections, during September, October and November of the midterm years. As you can see in the figure below, Trump’s average monthly campaign travel just barely outstrips recent presidential midterm campaign travel, even though it far surpasses Obama’s. But outside of the election season, Trump’s domestic travel lags considerably behind his predecessors’.


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3. All eyes on 2020

What might we expect from the campaigner in chief in his third year? In addition to reacting to the challenges of governing, the president and his strategists will undoubtedly be searching for further opportunities to hold MAGA rallies and raise money for the 2020 reelection campaign.

Will Trump move beyond “safe” red states to the more competitive swing states that could determine the 2020 presidential election? Most of his predecessors traveled to campaign in their third and fourth years. The further we get into the Trump administration, the more his domestic travel may resemble that of his predecessors, who were also hoping to secure another four-year lease on the White House.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas (@kdtenpas) is a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

James A. McCann is a professor of political science at Purdue University.