WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden will rally supporters on Thursday in the closely contested state of Florida, visiting the same city hours apart and putting on full display their contrasting approaches to the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.
Opinion polls ahead of the Nov. 3 elections show Biden with a significant edge nationally, but with a tighter lead in the battleground states that play a decisive role in the final result. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday showed Trump had essentially moved into a tie with Biden in Florida, with 49% saying they would vote for Biden and 47% for the president.
With its 29 electoral votes, the state is a major prize in next Tuesday’s election. Trump’s victory in Florida in 2016 was key to his surprise election win.
Trump will stage an outdoor rally in Tampa. Thousands of people have crowded together at recent rallies held by the president, many eschewing masks despite public health recommendations.
Biden, in contrast, will hold a drive-in rally later in Tampa where attendees will remain in their cars. He will host a similar event earlier in the day in Broward County north of Miami.
In the days leading up to the election, the pandemic that has upended life across the United States this year, killing more than 227,000 people and causing millions of job losses, is roaring back.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the threat of the pandemic, saying this week his opponents and the news media will cease paying attention to it right after the election, even as leaders in Europe scramble to contain a second wave and public health experts predict a grim winter in the United States.
Trump’s own White House coronavirus task force is warning of a persistent and broad spread of COVID-19 in the western half of the United States, including in a number of states that will play an important role in the election.
“We are on a very difficult trajectory. We’re going in the wrong direction,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, task force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNBC on Wednesday night.
He called for “aggressive mitigation” strategies.
The Republican president hailed figures released on Thursday that show the U.S. economy grew at an unrivaled pace of 33% in the third quarter due to a huge federal pandemic relief program.
“So glad this great GDP number came out before November 3rd,” Trump wrote in a tweet. However, it is doubtful whether economic data this close to Election Day can influence the outcome. Biden can point out that U.S. output remains below its level in the fourth quarter of 2019, before the pandemic hit.
In the Reuters/Ipsos poll in Florida, 48% of likely voters said Biden would be better at handling the pandemic, while 42% said Trump would be better. Some 52% said Trump would be better at managing the economy, against 41% for Biden.
Following his own bout with COVID-19, the president has had a hectic campaign schedule, holding as many as three rallies a day in different states, while Biden has taken a more measured tack, spending two days this week close to his home base of Delaware.
Trump plans to return to the Midwest on Friday, campaigning in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In all, he plans to visit 10 states in the last week of the campaign and will host 11 rallies in the final 48 hours, a campaign official said.
More than 79 million people have cast early in-person and mail ballots nationally, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. That is a record-setting pace and more than half the total 2016 turnout.
FILE PHOTO: Campaign signs are posted near the Supervisor of Elections Office polling station while people line up for early voting in Pinellas County ahead of the election in Largo, Florida. U.S. October 21, 2020. REUTERS/Octavio Jones
Florida is home to large Latino populations, with Cuban-Americans in the south of Florida traditionally tending to favor Republicans, while newer communities of Puerto Ricans in central Florida lean toward the Democrats.
Biden’s campaign tried on Thursday to dampen concerns among Democrats that Biden is not reaching Latino voters nationally as well as former President Barack Obama used to.
“We are 100% on track to match or exceed the Obama Latino vote numbers in 2012,” Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions, said on a media conference call organized by the Biden campaign.
In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia prosecutor issued a stark warning for Trump campaign poll-watchers not to overstep their bounds as they search for voter fraud. The Trump campaign has said it is recruiting an “army” of 50,000 volunteers to monitor polling places, an effort Democrats say could suppress the vote.
If Trump does appear to be interfering with vote counting or manipulating poll results after Election Day, dozens of activist groups who claim to represent millions of Americans from both political parties plan to hit the streets in protest.
In a setback for Republicans in two battleground states, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to allow extensions for receiving mail-in votes in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Trump has made unfounded claims that voting by mail, a common practice in U.S. elections, leads to widespread fraud.
Reporting by James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Ernest Scheyder, Jarrett Renshaw, Daniel Trotta, Heather Timmons and Alexandra Alper; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry and Rosalba O’Brien