The cat-and-mouse campaigning by Donald Trump and Joe Biden has led the president and his Democratic challenger to the same locations, sometimes on the same day, while displaying radically different styles as they court American voters.
As the candidates criss-cross the battleground states likely to determine the outcome of the November 3 election, two competing trends have emerged: Biden holds small campaign gatherings, while Trump orchestrates crowded rallies that flout local health rules.
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Trump, the 74-year-old rabble-rouser desperate to recreate the spectacle of his upstart 2016 campaign, is unmasked and unfazed by the threat of coronavirus.
Biden, a cautious adherent to pandemic policy, wears a face covering to mostly empty halls where he speaks to a television audience, but with few if any everyday voters present.
The glaring differences most likely will be on display for the remaining 55 days until the election, as they are this week in battleground Michigan.
On Wednesday Biden arrived at a United Auto Workers parking lot in Warren, near Detroit, and immediately addressed the specter of the pandemic and his eagerness to follow local mandates.
Such compliance is anathema to Trump, who usually barrels into a location unmasked and in defiance of ordinances, as he did in North Carolina on Tuesday before mocking the restrictions to a cheering crowd.
Outdoor gatherings in Michigan are currently limited to 100 people, but Trump is certain to ignore that restriction Thursday when he hosts a rally at an airport outside Saginaw.
“Nothing is going to move Trump away from as large a rally as he can generate,” professor Tobe Berkovitz, an expert on political communication at Boston University, told AFP.
“Being in everybody’s face is his strategy and he’s sticking with it.”
Biden admits he longs for a return to traditional campaigning, but he has signalled he will keep trading the image of a crowded rally for the substance of a sharp speech.
Berkovitz said the team around Biden — who would become the oldest US president ever, at 78, and whose mental acuity is repeatedly questioned by Trump — keenly uses the pretense of a coronavirus threat to reduce chances of spontaneous interaction triggering a Biden gaffe weeks before the election.
“The tighter the shield they can put around Biden, the better they are,” he said.
“But I don’t think it serves democracy,” added Berkovitz. Presidential candidates should be “challenged” by real voters, “and that’s just not happening.”
– ‘Broom closet’ campaigning? –
Trump and his team relentlessly mock Biden’s events, often posting images of the Democrat’s campaign stops, such as him seated in a garden talking to a handful of voters.
Biden “could hold a campaign event in a broom closet,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. Murtaugh also decried efforts by Nevada’s Democratic government officials to restrict the president’s large rally planned for Saturday.
On Friday, both candidates will be at the same event in pivotal Pennsylvania, commemorating the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
How the rival candidates will act, and whether they meet face to face, will be closely watched.
Biden backers are not displeased with their candidate’s low-key campaign, which has remained effective through the summer, Berkovitz noted.
Biden maintains a substantial lead over Trump in national polling, and smaller leads in the swing states.
With most Americans supporting mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines, “until something happens so that (Biden’s) strategy no longer works, why change it?” Berkovitz said.
– Trump playing catch-up –
Biden has stepped up his ground game by visiting more states and not letting the narrative of hiding in his Delaware home congeal, said John Hudak, a senior governance fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
“And while they may not be the same setting — an airplane hangar versus a plant lot — they’re going to be getting the same amount of news coverage,” Hudak said of Trump’s and Biden’s competing events.
“The important thing to remember is that Biden doesn’t need to catch up to anything; it is the president who needs to catch up to Biden,” Hudak said.
And by “leading by example” on coronavirus measures like mask wearing and social distancing, he added, Biden is appealing to independents and progressives who strongly support such measures.
“A lot of Republicans will laugh at it,” Hudak said. “But a lot of Americans are going to look at that and say, ‘that’s what we’re doing.'”