Tensions flare in fight for key states, and Trump cheers a truck caravan swarming a Biden bus
President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden delivered final pitches in Pennsylvania and Michigan on Saturday, battling over the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, as their campaigns scoured for votes from a diminishing pool of Americans who have yet to cast ballots.
As former President Obama mobilized voters with Biden at drive-in events in Detroit and Flint, Mich., and Trump held four rallies across the Keystone State, anxious Democrats in Pennsylvania, Florida and other battleground states focused on finding alternatives for hundreds of thousands of voters who requested ballots by mail but might not return them in time to be counted.
At one of his rallies, Trump cheered the intimidation of his rival’s campaign. In Texas, where Biden surrogates were campaigning Friday, a caravan of vehicles adorned with Trump signs and flags surrounded a Biden campaign bus and appeared to try to slow it down or force it to pull over, prompting the campaign to call 911 and cancel two events. A police escort ultimately guided the bus to its destination.
“Did anybody see the picture of that crazy bus driving down the highway, they’re surrounded by, like, hundreds of cars? They’re all Trump flags all over the place,” the president said at his rally in Montoursville, Pa. “What a group. It’s like a hot thing. See, that’s really No. 1 trending.”
Later in the evening, Biden tweeted, “The words of a president matter. And time and time again, Donald Trump has callously used his to incite violence, stoke the flames of hatred and division, and drive us further apart. It’s time for it to end.”
At his rallies Saturday, Trump urged supporters to bypass early voting options in hopes of making up ground on election day, while railing against Supreme Court decisions that could let some states count ballots received days later, repeating unsubstantiated claims that votes not tallied by Tuesday are likely to be fraudulent.
“This is one opportunity to turn our country around and we’re not going to blow it,” Trump, whose voice has grown hoarse from campaigning and suffering from COVID-19 last month, told a crowd of supporters on a muddy farm in Bucks County, Pa., where George Washington slept before crossing the Delaware.
In Flint, Obama promised a post-Trump world where “you’re not going to have to think about him every day” and “you’re not going to argue about him with your family every day.”
For more than three years, Obama didn’t respond to Trump’s attacks, honoring the norm that former presidents don’t criticize successors. But no more.
Biden, promising a plan to gain control of COVID-19, hammered the same theme: “We’re done with the chaos, the tweets, the anger, the failure, refusing to take any responsibility.”
The Democrat continues to lead Trump in national polls by an average of about 8 or 9 percentage points, a relatively stable gap that surpasses Hillary Clinton’s polling edge from four years ago. But Trump and his closest political advisors believe they have a path to another upset, especially if they hold onto Pennsylvania, a key state in Trump’s 2016 victory.
One close Trump advisor called Pennsylvania “a dogfight,” despite several new polls showing a Biden lead of at least 5 percentage points in the state. Biden plans to campaign there Sunday.
Trump believes that his large, packed rallies, which flout public health warnings, underscore heightened enthusiasm for his candidacy that will put him over the top among voters who wait until election day to cast their ballots.
“This doesn’t seem like someone who is going to come in second,” Trump told a roaring crowd in Reading, Pa., as he imitated the “honk, honk” sound of Biden’s drive-in events. A rally in Butler, hours later, was just as full.
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Trump’s rallies aim to erase the image of a country paralyzed by the pandemic, which has killed more than 230,000 people in the U.S., and convince voters that he can bring back jobs and lost income.
He falsely claimed Biden would “lock down America” to gain “power and control over you,” while mocking the smaller groups of people at Biden’s rallies, where social distancing is practiced.
But it’s a risky message.
A Stanford University study of 18 Trump rallies released Friday, comparing impacts in similar communities to where the rallies were held, estimated that they led to 30,000 more COVID-19 cases and 700 additional deaths, though not necessarily among the attendees themselves.
Biden hoped to demonstrate a contrast with Trump’s style as he campaigned at smaller drive-in-movie-style events with Obama in Michigan, another state where a close victory in 2016 helped put Trump over the top.
A Stanford study of 18 Trump rallies held in the midst of the pandemic suggests they’ve led to more than 30,000 coronavirus infections and at least 700 COVID-19 deaths.
Obama, citing the Stanford study, blasted Trump for focusing on the size of his rallies during a pandemic. “Trump cares about feeding his ego. Joe cares about keeping you and your family safe,” he said in Flint.
In Detroit, where he and Biden were joined by Stevie Wonder, Obama tried to undermine Trump’s argument that he would be able to restore the economy if given a second term, while contrasting the president’s behavior with Biden’s.
“Look, I understand this is a president who wants full credit for the economy he inherited and zero blame for the pandemic he ignored,” Obama said. “But the job doesn’t work that way. The TV doesn’t fix things; making stuff up doesn’t make people’s lives better.”
Both Obama and Biden seized on Trump’s false claim Friday that doctors were inflating COVID-19 death counts so they could make more money.
“What the hell is wrong with this man?” Biden asked. “It’s a disgrace, especially coming from a president who’s waving the white flag of surrender to this virus.”
The campaigns have been upended by a pandemic that has prompted 60% of the expected electorate to cast their ballots days before Saturday’s speeches.
Elections offices nationwide have counted more than 91 million votes through mail-in ballots or early voting, according to the United States Election Project, run by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald.
The early votes overwhelmingly favor Democrats so far, a reflection of Trump’s unsubstantiated warnings that voting by mail is not secure.
But Democrats are anxious about the mail-in ballots that have been sent out but not yet returned, particularly in Pennsylvania, where recent court rulings opened the possibility that ballots postmarked by election day but not received at election offices until later would be discarded. More than a quarter of the mail-in ballots requested by Pennsylvania voters had not been received in elections offices by Friday.
The Democratic data firm Hawkfish, funded by billionaire former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, warned Saturday that hundreds of thousands of yet-to-be delivered ballots of Biden voters were essential to his victory in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Georgia. “If these votes don’t get counted, there is no way for Biden to win,” said Hawkfish Chief Executive Josh Mendelsohn.
Trump made numerous unfounded claims that Pennsylvania’s election would be tainted while lambasting the Supreme Court for not slamming the door shut on accepting ballots after election day.
“You know when the cheating is going to take place — from the 3rd to whatever the date is that they” allow ballots, Trump said in Reading.
Voting specialists say there is no evidence of widespread fraud with mail-in ballots.
Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.
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