Trump in town today: Candidates’ campaign styles diverge in time of COVID

President Trump arrives in Ohio today for two rallies during a coronavirus pandemic that has upended traditional aspects of presidential campaigns and revealed a stark contrast in how the two candidates connect with voters.

“For President Trump, his rallies are such an important part of his identity that he just can’t conceive of campaigning any other way,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. "In his own mind, doing rallies is a critical part of his campaign — and those are in person, those are large events and they are controversial given the nature of the virus.”

But in a presidential election year like no other, even the act of having a campaign event is politically polarized.

“There is no easy style of campaigning right now, unless you want to be reckless,” said Rhine McLin, vice chairwoman of the Ohio Democratic Party and former Dayton mayor.

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Trump is scheduled to appear at a private campaign event called “Fighting for the American Worker” at 4:30 p.m. at Wright Bros. Aero, which operates at the Dayton International Airport.

Citing the coronavirus, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, has eschewed the kinds of events Trump relishes.

“As President Trump continues to hold events that disregard his own administration’s guidance during this pandemic, Biden for President is engaging with voters strategically and safely — over the airwaves, and by directly connecting with Ohioans one-on-one as we continue to grow a diverse coalition of support that will help defeat President Trump in November,” said Toni Webb, director of Biden’s campaign in Ohio on Friday.

But Dan Lusheck, spokesman for the Trump campaign in Ohio, accused Biden of hiding from voters.

“Democrats' strategy is to try to make campaigning from Joe Biden’s basement seem normal and correct because they know they have a terrible candidate with a disastrous record,” he said. “We don’t share their enthusiasm for hiding their candidate and scripting interviews with a teleprompter. Hidin' Joe Biden doesn’t measure up to President Trump, and they know it.”

After departing Dayton today, Trump is scheduled to appear outside Toledo at a Great American Comeback rally that is open to the public.

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“The president gets energy from crowds. He gets motivated from crowds. It’s his favorite mode of campaigning and he simply isn’t going to put that aside when his re-election is at stake," said Jim Nathanson, a Dayton-based political consultant.

Nathanson, who ran former President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign in Ohio and a former Republican National Committee political director, said Biden is more willing to take a relaxed style.

“He’s less affected by staying away from large groups and campaigning through small groups, through television, through Zoom events," he said. "It’s really the difference in their styles.”

Smith said while Biden may be playing it safe with the virus, his campaign team is also playing it safe by limiting what Biden may say at public appearances.

“It’s clear that his campaign team is trying to reduce his interactions to some extent with media members and audiences,” he said. “Because in their minds, they’re ahead and there’s no need to over campaign.”

Nathanson said Trump sees little need to restrict his behavior while Biden believes altering behavior is central to fighting the pandemic.

"What you find is their difference in campaign styles are reinforced by their different attitudes toward how they handle the pandemic,” Nathanson said.

Those attitudes will likely clash when they meet Sept. 29 for the first presidential debate in Cleveland.

“Ohioans are fed up with Trump’s broken promises, and Joe is eager to return to our battleground state to share his vision for how we can build back better than ever before,” said Webb with the Biden campaign, though the campaign did not say whether Biden plans to visit southwest Ohio.

The pandemic has also shifted the way retail politics is practiced, with much more conducted online and fewer campaign offices and interns knocking on doors, Smith said.

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“I think the long-term effects of the virus on how candidates campaign could be significant, but we’re going to need to see data before we know how significant,” he said.

McLin said the traditional door-to-door campaigning is being replaced with campaigns working hard to get videos to go viral on platforms like Twitter and Tik Tok.

“You really got to be creative about how you do a campaign in COVID,” she said.

State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp. — who is also chairman of the Montgomery County GOP — said area Republican candidates have curtailed large local events and there are fewer parades where they can meet the public. But they are still knocking on doors and dropping off literature, which can be done safely if they wear masks and keep their distance, he said.

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“People respect they are at their doors they appreciate it, and they appreciate people wearing masks,” Plummer said.

Lusheck said the Trump campaign transitioned from in-person to virtual, then back to in-person events during the pandemic and has knocked on two million doors in Ohio and contacted more than 10 million Ohio voters.

“(The Trump campaign) fully intends on once again winning Montgomery County for President Trump, and the president has made it clear that all roads to the White House run through Ohio,” he said. "The president has been aggressively campaigning in Ohio for over a year, and our unprecedented field operation is certain to deliver a huge victory in November for President Trump.

While gatherings of no more than 10 people are still generally prohibited by state public health rules, there are many exemptions which include for political rallies, said Dan Suffoletto, Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County spokesman.

But the advice of health officials remains unchanged.

“Whether you go into the Bengals game or you’re going to a political rally, we’re still encouraging you to wear your mask, keep social distance and wash your hands frequently,” Suffoletto said.

Lusheck said they provide masks and hand sanitizer and do temperature checks at their events.

The website to register for Trump’s public events includes a disclaimer releasing his campaign and its affiliates of liability related to coronavirus. “By registering for this event, you understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present,” it says.