The decision to hold a political rally has become one of the sharpest differences between the candidates in an election year defined by a global pandemic.
President Donald Trump is willing to flout coronavirus warnings by holding raucous, and sometimes indoor, political events, while Democratic nominee Joe Biden hasn’t headlined a sizable gathering in months.
The different tactics illustrate how Trump and Biden are approaching the November election and the ongoing coronavirus crisis. It was on full display over the last 24 hours when Trump disregarded Nevada state guidelines by holding an indoor rally with thousands of attendees on Sunday night, just hours before Biden, from Wilmington, Delaware, gave an audience-less speech on the deadly forest fires hitting the West Coast.
Republicans believe rallies are central to Trump’s victory, both providing the President the energy he needs to compete over the next two months and giving him the same platform that helped unexpectedly propel him to the White House four years ago. The Trump campaign and White House paused in-person rallies for months during the pandemic, but as Trump’s poll numbers lagged, rallies were put back on Trump’s schedule. (Biden, for his part, has not held a rally since March 9.)
Democrats, watching Trump embody his skeptical stance towards coronavirus, welcome the events, believing that the President’s often meandering speeches provide them far more in attack ad material than they do in help to Trump’s campaign.
It took mere hours for Democrats to weaponize Trump telling a Tulsa, Oklahoma, audience in June that he ordered his aides to “slow the testing (for coronavirus) down” in order to suppress the national virus positivity numbers. Multiple Democratic super PACs and the Biden campaign used the comment in ads to attack Trump for mishandling the virus.
The rallies also distract Trump, sending him on meandering tangents and knocking him off the message that his advisers would like him to push.
In June, at that same Tulsa rally, Trump spent time fully reenacting how he could drink water with one hand, pushing back against a Democratic speculation about why he struggled to bring a glass of water to his mouth during a speech at West Point earlier in the month.
Just days later, Trump appeared at an event in Phoenix and told an audience of young people that the virus was “going away.” The comment played right into Democratic messaging and came as cases were spiking in Arizona.
And during a September rally in Pennsylvania, Trump spent almost eight minutes riffing on speculation about his own health and so-called “mini-strokes,” an assertion that has not been verified or independently reported by reputable news outlets.
For someone like Guy Cecil, the head of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, a group that will spend millions on Trump attack ads by November, the rallies are a godsend.
“The most important thing to know about Trump’s rallies is that he uses it to say things out loud that most people would only say behind closed doors and it gives us a chance to use his own vulnerabilities against him,” said Cecil. “We spend a lot of time trying to decide which things Trump has said in his rallies should be included” in ads.
Priorities USA plans to spend $50 million on battleground state ads over the final two months of the campaign, some of which will be spots that feature comment Trump has made at his rallies.
Other Democrats argued that the mere image of Trump holding rallies highlights how he isn’t taking the virus seriously, a key messaging plank for the party this year.
“The President’s series of super spreader rallies confirm what Americans already know – he doesn’t take this virus seriously,” said Lily Adams, a top operative at the Democratic National Committee. “Even before he opens his mouth to attack war heroes or rattle off falsehoods, he makes it clear he’s unfit to lead our nation through this crisis.”
But Trump’s events, like they did in 2016, also provide the President with a key platform for him to demonstrate how he is unlike most other politicians, a trait that won him needed support four years earlier. They also provide Trump’s campaign with needed data about their supporters and drive mostly positive local news coverage.
Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s top spokesman, said the continued rallies are the best example of the differences between Trump and Biden.
“It shows a really stark contrast between the President and his enthusiastic supporters,” said Murtaugh, “and Joe Biden and the sleepiness that surrounds his campaign.”
But rallies have yet to fully turn around Trump’s national polls, with a series of new national polls finding Biden up narrowly. Some key statewide polls have narrowed, but Biden continues to lead in most key swing states.
Murtaugh shrugged off any suggestion that the packed rallies create a level of diminishing return for the President and his campaign, arguing that they not only show how much enthusiasm exists for the President, but also helps to build even more excitement from a broad spectrum of voters – despite the optics of Trump rallies basically being the only large-scale events in America with big crowds, limited social distancing and very few masks.
“Americans want to return to normal life. Joe Biden wants to set it up as a false choice, that you can either return to normal life with precautions or you can be safe. Biden wants to make it one or the other,” Murtaugh said. “We reject that you can’t be safe and reopen. And it’s a convenient excuse for a campaign that can’t muster any enthusiasm.”
Trump’s rallies are often freewheeling and long, with the President speaking for around 90 minutes at each event. They open the door for the President to say whatever he wants to an adoring crowd, even if his comments are often based in falsehoods.
While those falsehoods may not hurt Trump in the moment, they do live on.
“In every one of these instances, Donald Trump is putting the same outrageous dereliction proven by the recordings released yesterday on full display,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates, who accused the President for “binging on personal grievances to distract from his own failures” on the coronavirus. “All he’s accomplishing is making Joe Biden’s case for him.”
Trump’s strategy is to fire up his base to a level unseen in past presidential elections, with the hopes that turnout among diehard Trump supporters is so substantial that some of the President’s losses with seniors and suburban voters can be overcome.
The President’s rallies embody that strategy, as they boost his diehard base – both those in attendance and those who watch from afar.
Liam Donovan, a former top operative at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said – at this point – Republicans have to be willing to take the risk of Trump giving Democrats a gift from the stage.
“They realize, at this point, that we’re mostly past persuasion and just trying to crank out as many votes in the right places as possible,” he said. “He’s bound to say anything and veer way off message from what they want to be talking about, but that’s a risk you have to be willing to take at this point.”