President Donald Trump likely needs to win Florida if he wants to be president for another four years. But as he campaigned in Tampa on the same day his Democratic challenger was also visiting the area, the president continued to operate inside his own version of reality.
There, his perceived grievances against the media, Democrats, presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter are key parts of his final pitch to voters as Trump tries to get another term in the White House, one where he continued to lie and say “whether we have ( a vaccine) or not, it’s rounding the turn,” about the pandemic.
He continued to downplay the severity of COVID-19 while speaking in a state that was hit hard by the pandemic this summer and 16,648 Florida residents have died, according to state coronavirus data, as a crowd of maskless faces could be seen behind him, cheering him on.
“If you get close, wear a mask... it’s not controversial to me, you get close, you wear a mask, social distance, social distance,” Trump said to a crowd of people not following that advice. “You know the bottom line, though, you’re going to go get better. You’re going to get better. If I can get better, anybody can get better. And I got better fast."
With both Biden and Trump appearing Thursday in Tampa just days before the polls close, a tight race between the two is clear. The latest NBC News/Marist survey places the former vice president four percentage points ahead of Trump among likely voters. And a Monmouth poll released Thursday found Biden ahead of Trump by six points in a high turnout situation and leading by four points in the low turnout findings.
In the dueling speeches, Trump criticized Biden as having an agenda that “will devastate the Hispanic American community,” in another act of exaggeration with no evidence after earlier calling Biden “the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics.”
And in his own remarks Biden later that night at the Florida State Fairgrounds, where Biden walked on stage wearing a mask that he took off before he started speaking, both the nation’s death toll and the number of people lost in Florida were mentioned by the former vice president early on.
Trump has “given up,” Biden said, as he attacked the president’s handling of the pandemic. The president has "waived the white flag, abandoned our families and surrendered to this virus,” Biden said.
“Donald Trump just had a super spreader event here again,” Biden said. “They're spreading more than just coronavirus. He's spreading division and discord. We need a president who's going to bring us together. Not pull us apart.”
The differences between the two candidates for president were stark not only in their messages, but also when it came to how they approached holding events in the Tampa area during the pandemic. Trump drew a large outdoor crowd to a makeshift rally venue Thursday afternoon in a parking lot near the stadium used by Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the latest instance of the campaign encouraging the kind of large gathering that alarms health experts.
A campaign aide made clear that Biden’s drive-in-event later that night was ticketed and required masks. Biden had also held a similar drive in stop in Broward County, Florida earlier in the day. The Biden campaign’s events mitigation efforts also include social distancing and “mandatory masks-wearing” per the aide, who also noted their events follow state capacity restrictions.
Video of the crowd on a live stream of the president’s rally showed no social distancing around the stage and poor mask usage from the sea of Trump fans. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has aggressively rolled back restrictions in the state, appeared at Thursday’s Trump rally, maskless and throwing hats to the crowd before the president came on stage. Twice when DeSantis was speaking, the governor had to stop his remarks to help direct a medic to aid someone in the crowd. NBC News later reported that 12 people headed to the hospital tied to the event that saw 87 degree heat.
Trump’s rally in Tampa came as the county it calls home still has “substantial spread with COVID," said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University.
“We've had an increase in cases in Florida recently and so I think it's very risky for people to be congregating in large groups right now and they really need to be careful,” Trepka said. “And if people are not doing that then we risk fueling the transmission that we have going on right now in the state.”
The stadium near Trump’s event is an early voting site, which caused the county’s supervisor of elections office to make clear in a statement Wednesday that Florida law barred electioneering “within 150 feet of an Early Voting site, but the Supervisor of Elections Office cannot prohibit campaign activities outside this “no solicitation zone.’”
“The rally and campaigners will be outside of this zone,” the office said in their statement.
Trump has placed a heavy focus on winning Florida, and losing the state would likely spell doom for his re-election chances. Both he and Vice President Mike Pence have appeared repeatedly in the state this month.
That focus included Trump returning to the campaign trail with a rally in Sanford, Florida earlier this month a week after leaving the hospital after being treated for COVID-19. That event worried both health experts and some in the community as they pointed to concerns about the behavior and the poor example the president was setting in the midst of the pandemic.
Top surrogates for the Democratic ticket have been active in Florida in the campaign’s closing days, including former President Barack Obama who stumped for his former number two in Orlando while voting in-person was already underway. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Biden’s running mate, will touch down on Saturday in the state, making stops in three countries: Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade.
Winning Florida is crucial for Trump, said J. Edwin Benton, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, but it’s not as critical for Biden given his other possible pathways to victory though a win would still be a major success for the former vice president’s campaign. And the stark differences in rallies between the two in Tampa is symbolic, Benton said, of how they are approaching the pandemic at this stage.
“Losing Florida will be the dagger in the heart to the Trump campaign,” Benton said of the possible outcome.
And as Biden closed out the day of Florida campaigning between the two, the former vice president made the contrast between him and Trump clear again, as he pledged to put “a plan in place," to handle the pandemic "responsibly, bringing the country together around testing, tracing, masking.”
“I’m not going to shut down the economy, I’m not going to shut down the country,” Biden said, responding to one of Trump’s constant attacks on him before heavy rain started and the event ended. “I’m going to shut down the virus.”
—With additional reporting from Hanna Trudo