Poll: Most Americans disapprove of Trump’s decision to hold massive campaign rallies during COVID-19 pandemic

WASHINGTON – It’s the most stark stylistic difference between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden: The incumbent has surrounded himself with thousands of supporters at dozens of rallies while the Democratic challenger is literally keeping his distance.

But as Trump and Biden embrace strikingly different approaches to campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll finds that nearly two-thirds of likely voters prefer Biden’s low-key strategy to Trump’s raucous fanfare.

Nearly six in 10 Americans disapprove of Trump’s decision to continue to hold large rallies during the pandemic, according to the poll, while nearly 64% approve of Biden’s decision to jettison big events in favor of much smaller gatherings. 

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Trump has held more than two dozen rallies since recovering from his own bout with COVID-19 this month – and he is expected to hold at least a dozen more before Tuesday’s election. The rallies are held outdoors, usually at airports, and supporters are packed in tight. While some rallygoers wear masks, many do not and Trump himself does not wear one. 

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Goodyear, Ariz., on Oct. 28, 2020.

Biden has rarely gathered more than a few dozen supporters at a time, often enforcing recommended distancing with white, spray-painted circles for each participant. His campaign has insisted participants get tested before they show up and wear masks.

Eager to project the idea the nation has “turned the corner” on the pandemic, despite a recent surge in cases and hospitalizations, Trump has repeatedly mocked Biden’s events, joked about the paltry attendance and ridiculed the Democrat for wearing a mask. Trump tweeted a striking video on Wednesday showing Marine One hovering over a crowded rally compared with a masked Biden walking into a sparsely populated gathering of people who sat on chairs within white circles around them. 

“He’s got like five circles. And he goes there, and people are standing,” Trump said during a rally this month in Georgia. “Number one, there’s no people there and the few people that are there are like what, 50 yards away.”

The message is clear. Whether it’s resonating with voters is not. 

Almost all Dems balk at rallies 

Biden held a steady 8-point lead over Trump in the nationwide poll, 52%-44%, which was taken after the final presidential debate last week. That gap reflects little change since the survey was taken at Labor Day, the unofficial start of the fall campaign season, when the former vice president led by 7 points, 50%-43%.

Trump and his aides have said the rallies are a chance for his supporters to exercise their right to free speech and they have compared the gatherings to Black Lives Matters protests that unfolded in many cities this summer. 

“Americans have the right to gather under the First Amendment to hear from the president of the United States, and we take strong precautions for our campaign events,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella, pointing to the temperature checks required and the masks and hand sanitizer that are offered. 

The fault lines around the different approaches the campaigns have taken to the pandemic are even more stark when broken down by party. A full 95% of Democrats say they disapprove of Trump’s rallies; that compares with 73% of Republicans who say they support the approach. Younger voters were more likely to disapprove of Trump’s rallies, the poll showed, though it is older Americans who are most vulnerable to the virus. 

Trump’s approval came from fellow Republicans, 73% of whom backed the idea of large rallies. Men approved more than women by 14 points. Women approved more of Biden’s approach by 10 points. The disapproval of Trump’s strategy was strongest among Black voters at 85% and Hispanic voters at 75%, compared to 51% among whites.

The poll of 1,000 likely voters by landline and cellphone was taken Oct. 23 to 27. The margin of error was 3.1 percentage points.

“The bottom line is: Donald Trump is the worst possible president – the worst possible person – to try to lead us through this pandemic,” Biden told reporters during an event in Pennsylvania on Monday. 

People social distance as Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks at an aluminum manufacturing facility in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on September 21, 2020.

‘They expect too much of him’ 

Many Trump supporters interviewed by USA TODAY over the past year have disregarded concerns about the potential for the rallies to spread the virus, echoing the president’s own comparisons with Black Lives Matters protests.  

Pat Lindsay, attending her first rally this week, came to the Phoenix Goodyear Airport hoping to get a glimpse of Trump. She brought a blue, floppy hat to keep the Arizona sun from her eyes and a blue face mask with “TRUMP” scrawled on it in black marker.

Lindsay, who moved to Goodyear earlier this year, said she didn’t want the COVID-19 pandemic to stop her from coming to the rally. The virus will “run its course,” she said.

She spent the afternoon standing toward the back of a large crowd that had been growing since the late morning. The thousands of people around her, many of them unmasked and standing close together, didn’t concern her.

President Donald Trump holds up his fist as he leaves after speaking during a Make America Great Again rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport October 28, 2020, in Goodyear, Arizona.

“It’s outdoors. You can move around and you can take these off,” she said, holding up a face mask in her hand. “It shouldn’t be the president in charge of how epidemics are handled. They expect too much of him.”

Still, a recent USA TODAY analysis shows that COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate after at least five of Trump’s rallies since mid-August, including in Blue Earth County, Minnesota; Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania; Marathon County, Wisconsin; Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; and Beltrami County, Minnesota. 

On Monday, Trump held a celebratory event on the South Lawn of the White House following the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice of Amy Coney Barrett. Dozens of people who attended a Sept. 26 Rose Garden announcement of her nomination later tested positive for the virus. Public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described the event as a “superspreader.”  

More:‘The data speak for themselves’: Fauci says White House hosted superspreader

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The crowd listens to the National Anthem before Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Las Vegas Drive-In campaign event at Southeast Career Technical Academy, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Crowds vs. safety

Trump has traveled far more extensively – more visits to more states – with routine crowds in the thousands throughout the campaign. But the Biden camp’s response is that they’ve been more responsible in holding events online or with health precautions.

“We’ve been aggressively campaigning,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “But here’s the difference between what we’re doing and what Donald Trump is doing: We’re doing it safely.”

Biden has urged people for months to wear masks, while he proposes to create a national program to expand testing and tracing of people who become infected. He has proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars to help schools and businesses buy protective equipment and change their operations to reopen more safely.

“The big difference between us – and the reason why it looks like we’re not traveling – we’re not putting on super-spreaders,” Biden said in Pennsylvania. “It’s important to be responsible.”

The Biden campaign’s precautions were prominent when the vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, met with local officials in Miami on Sept. 10. Participants at the roundtable wore masks and sat around a U-shaped table.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., told Harris that voters were depending on the ticket to reopen schools safely because children were unhappy wearing masks.

“They don’t know what to do. They’re confused,” Wilson said. “They have to wear a mask. They have to blow their noses. They have to sneeze. They have to cry. They don’t want to wear a mask. We’re depending on you and Joe Biden, who cares.”

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