US President Donald Trump has encouraged his supporters to visit polling stations after sending in their ballot in November’s presidential election.
Addressing a rally in North Carolina on Tuesday, Mr Trump told his audience: “Make sure you send the ballot in and then go to your polling place and make sure it counts.”
He added that the only way Democrats can win in the forthcoming presidential election is “by doing very bad things”.
North Carolina caps outdoor gatherings at 50 people to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but Mr Trump basked in a crowd of several thousand supporters, most of whom were not wearing face masks, during a rally in the critical battleground state.
Mr Trump, revelling at the sight of people flouting public health guidelines, said: “I really believe that these crowds are bigger than they were four years ago.”
In sharp contrast, a day earlier in Pennsylvania, Mr Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden held a socially distanced meeting in a back garden. His team has been so attentive to local regulations that some staff members have left the room if they risked breaking the rules on crowd limits.
Mr Biden recently told supporters: “I really miss being able to, you know, grab hands and shake hands. You can’t do that now.”
Mr Trump and Mr Biden are taking diametrically opposite approaches to campaigning during a pandemic – and the differences amount to more than political theatre. The candidates are effectively staking out different visions for the country with Biden emphasising guidelines supported by local health officials while Mr Trump rails against restrictions that he argues – without evidence – are politically motivated.
“By the way, your state should be open,” Mr Trump said in North Carolina – a state where he has feuded with governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, over his abandoned plans to hold the Republican National Convention in Charlotte.
“It’s you, it’s Michigan, it’s a couple others,” Mr Trump added, as he sees a potent line of attack in battleground states run by Democrats.
Mr Trump’s aides and allies suggest the president sees his rallies as a manifestation of the reopening he is preaching – and that he believes is vital to the nation’s economic recovery and what voters want.
In a dig at those who warn against reopening too quickly, Mr Trump suggested that these states would suddenly reopen the day after the election – when opponents advocating caution can no longer hurt his re-election.
Outdoor events used to be few and far between for Mr Trump, who prefers the deafening echo and air conditioning of indoor arenas. But in the wake of a June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when the president addressed a half-empty arena and a promised five-figure overflow crowd never materialised, his campaign decided to move to lower-stakes airport hangars and tarmacs.
But he still boasts about his crowd sizes in comparison to Mr Biden’s.
“If he had 200 people, I think it would be a lot,” Mr Trump said on Tuesday of his opponent. “Have you ever seen the gyms with the circles? That’s his crowd. If he had 200 people.”
Mr Biden’s crowds have actually been far smaller. The former vice president has appeared in public only sparingly since the pandemic hit – and with the strictest adherence to state guidelines: 25 people in Pennsylvania, 50 in Michigan and mandatory face-coverings all around. Mr Biden’s approach reflects the reluctance of many of his supporters to attend large gatherings.
For someone who has never been a natural in an arena, the smaller events allow Mr Biden to have more personal interactions with representatives from key voting blocs, like labour and community leaders.
But they also allow him to largely avoid any controversy created by a critical questioner or a protester, both of whom he was forced to grapple with multiple times on the campaign trail before the pandemic struck.
Even when Mr Biden is confronted with organic crowds of supporters, he is rarely given the opportunity for an unscripted interaction with them.
As Mr Biden gave a speech last week focused on the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus at a university building in Pittsburgh, a crowd of more than 100 gathered and continued to arrive even as his event wrapped up.
They chanted “We want Joe!” and waved Biden signs, some of them homemade. But, after his speech, Mr Biden remained inside the building to attend a virtual fundraiser, then abruptly left to pass out pizzas at a nearby firehouse without approaching the supporters.