The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Campaign of contrasts: Trump’s raucous crowds vs. Biden’s distanced gatherings

President Trump touts his environmental policies during a campaign stop at Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse in Florida on Tuesday.
President Trump touts his environmental policies during a campaign stop at Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse in Florida on Tuesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

LONDONDERRY, N.H. — When the announcer at President Trump's recent rally here urged a packed airplane hangar of supporters to don their masks, a cacophonous round of boos erupted, followed by defiance. No matter that the attendees' chairs were inches apart, their temperatures had not been taken and masks were required by the state.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, has barely left his home without a mask for months, and he makes a point of keeping voters — when he encounters any — at a distance from himself and one another. Events at drive-in theaters have been kept under 50 — people, not cars — to respect state guidelines.

This contrast continued Tuesday, when Trump flew to Florida and North Carolina, addressing crowds in both places, while Biden’s camp announced by 9:30 a.m. that he would make no public appearances all day. It’s a likely snapshot of the race’s final eight weeks: one campaign fueled by in-person events, raucous gatherings and defiant crowds flouting health rules; the other driven by quiet, small-bore events with everyone masked and spaced apart.

These are more than just competing messages for a country riven by a pandemic less than two months before an election. The two sides don’t even agree on what constitutes campaigning. And Republicans and Democrats each say their opponents are making a fatal error — with the Trump campaign attempting to cast life as largely normal, while Biden and his campaign largely stay at home.

“That’s great, great news for us,” Republican National Committee Chief of Staff Richard Walters said of the Democrats’ approach. “It’s an elitist viewpoint that says you have to remain locked down indefinitely until Joe Biden says you can come out of your basement. It’s a typical Democrat strategy where you take the choice of the individual away.”

If Trump is showcasing his brand of defiant individualism, Biden is seeking to demonstrate his rationality and willingness to heed experts. Democrats say Trump is scaring away swing voters alarmed by the pandemic while appealing to a core base that sees public health measures as going too far.

Virtual campaign efforts, by phone and text, they say, have returned results that are just as good as rallies or door-knocking.

“Trump wants the anti-mask protester vote, and that vote is not our persuasion target,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler. “The medium is the message. We saw in the spring that virtual organizing has an enormous impact.”

Biden says he’d require Americans to wear masks in public

While Biden’s team conducts no in-person campaigning and has yet to open a stand-alone office in any swing state, Trump’s operation has regularly flouted recommendations from local and state officials to hold in-person events and opened more than 280 offices.

Elliott Echols, the RNC’s national field director, says the party has held 31,000 in-person campaign events since June 11 and knocked on more than 1 million doors every week in August. It has doubled door-knocks since 2016, he said, and prizes such personal encounters over digital contact.

Overall, the president has forged ahead with a traditional campaign, while downplaying the continued severity of the virus. The strategy poses some risks, as some campaign advisers privately note his handling of the pandemic is his biggest political albatross.

Trump aides say to expect extensive travel — sometimes several stops in a day — in the campaign’s last weeks. Trump has dispensed with his arena-filled rallies for now, but he continues to address large gatherings in sites like airplane hangars or parks, even holding a packed event on the White House’s South Lawn, where attendees were not tested and most didn’t wear masks.

In the next week, Trump’s campaign has scheduled outdoor mass gatherings in Saginaw County, Mich.; Reno, Nev.; and Las Vegas, including a $150,000 fundraiser.

Trump’s official presidential events have also been flouting rules, with his visit to Jupiter, Fla., on Tuesday drawing an audience of about 200 without social distancing and only a few masks. The Florida Department of Health has advised the public to “refrain from gatherings of more than 10 people.”

Since the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States, officials say, Trump has gone ahead with at least 10 high-dollar, in-person fundraisers, often mingling with hundreds. Some guests have worn masks, but many have not, according to people at the events.

Trump has spent extended time at some events taking close-in photos with donors. Campaign aides say attendees are given a rapid test before entering, but such tests are not always accurate.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said the operation transitioned to virtual campaigning when the pandemic emerged and in mid-June shifted back. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve followed state and local guidelines to seamlessly adapt between virtual and in-person events,” she said.

Many attending Trump’s acceptance speech had no masks

Privately and in public, Trump has often mocked Biden for wearing a mask, and some of his allies have used Biden’s limited travel as a way to highlight his age and suggest he is ducking a more strenuous schedule. Biden is 77, and Trump is 74.

A recent Trump campaign office opening in Ohio drew more than 100 maskless supporters into a tight indoor space, despite guidelines from the Republican governor prohibiting gatherings of more than 10. Asked how Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) felt about this, spokesman Dan Tierney responded with a gently chiding email statement.

“First amendment activity has an exemption to the mass gathering order, although we advise participants to follow relevant guidance regarding masks, social distancing and hygiene,” he wrote.

Biden has broadcast a message opposite to Trump’s, even as he will adopt a more aggressive schedule later this week. That includes a stop in Michigan, where campaign officials have insisted that the total attendance for the outdoor event, including Secret Service and reporters, will not exceed the state guidance of 100 people and will maintain social distancing.

“Donald Trump’s voter outreach fails to understand the concerns of Americans right now,” the Biden campaign’s states director, Jenn Ridder, said. “He is blatantly having events. He is blatantly going to doors. And the reality of this country is, they are worried about the economy, they are worried about sending their kids to school, and they are worried about covid.”

With a fully remote workforce of 2,500 staffers, the Biden campaign has relied on long-distance outreach, largely by phone or text message, and has reported logging more than 2.6 million one-on-one conversations with voters in August. Trump campaign staffers have worked at their Arlington office, with many not wearing masks, aides say.

To distribute materials in swing states, the Biden campaign has been moving to set up “voter activation centers,” where people wearing masks and standing apart in line can get literature and yard signs. The operation is also planning to conduct door-to-door drops of campaign literature, Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon said Friday.

More in-person operations could open if the health situation shifts. “We’ll continue to monitor this as we go,” O’Malley Dillon said. “There is no hard yes or hard no, except for safety and ensuring that everyone is taking the appropriate mechanisms to allow them to be safe.”

But Biden’s strategy also carries risks, as some supporters and activists in key states have signaled that they are disappointed they have not seen a more direct personal presence from the nominee and his campaign.

Several Trump campaign and White House officials say they are heartened by reports from officials in battleground states that Biden has little presence on the ground and is largely on TV and radio.

Outside groups that typically handle a significant share of the in-person voter contact have also taken divergent paths, echoing the nominees’ philosophy.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition, organized by Ralph Reed, is executing its door-to-door campaign with little disruption, he said, conducting 1 million door-knocks at the homes of evangelical and antiabortion Catholic voters since the start of August, using canvassers who wear masks and practice social distancing.

“What has impacted us is the churches not being open for physical gathering,” Reed said. “We believe the bulk of the churches will be open for next month.”

Liberal groups are taking a more cautious approach. For Our Future, a union-backed group that targets low-income and minority communities, has shifted to an all-virtual program, even though that reduces its ability to reach some populations.

“The pandemic has made so much a little harder,” the group’s spokeswoman Liz Cattaneo said. “There are communities that are less likely to be reached online.”

In ordinary years, Democratic campaigns and party committees frequently rent fleets of vans to bring Black voters to the polls, but that might not work this year.

The nation’s largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, has also largely forsaken door-to-door campaigning for the moment. The group continues to do literature drops at work and has increased digital communications with members.

“Anytime you have to do things differently, you obviously have concerns,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “And this is a completely different game plan.”

Some Democratic-aligned groups are veering from the party line. Unite Here, a 300,000-member union that includes hotel and hospitality workers, has been sending organizers door to door in Arizona since July. “We really wanted to make this work because face-to-face canvassing is really one of the most important parts of our outreach program,” said Meghan Cohorst, a spokeswoman for Unite Here.

During a recent event in New Hampshire, Trump campaign volunteers handed out masks, but many people did not wear them. The state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, says large crowds in New Hampshire must wear masks, and officials walked around the room asking people to do so.

Instead, many in the crowd of thousands waved signs that mocked descriptions of protesters against police misconduct, whom Trump supporters often criticize for gathering in large groups during the pandemic.

“THIS IS A PEACEFUL PROTEST,” the signs read.