With less than a week until election day and over 80 million ballots already cast across the country, Donald Trump and Joe Biden set their sights back on Florida last Thursday. Both candidates have been to the state numerous times in recent weeks, but their rallies in Tampa marked the first time that they held organized events in the same city on the same day.
The Trump event took place in a large field on the north side of Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team. The stadium itself acted as an early voting site, and at the entrance on the east side, the sounds of the rally came through loud and clear. Some, like Emiline, a college student waving anti-Trump signs on the path to the polls, saw a public health issue with such a large campaign event next to a polling place. “A lot of people who are coming to vote are protecting themselves from COVID […] but then there’s a rally with thousands and thousands of people, you’re risking yourself getting COVID by coming here, so they really should have done it separate, so people could still safely come vote today.”
About half a dozen more Biden supporters gathered farther down the street, waving their pro-Biden/anti-Trump signs to motorists at a busy intersection. “We feel really small in our area,” said Kelly, another local college student. “It felt like it was important for us to come out here because we’re clearly outnumbered and it’s important to remind everybody else out here who is passing by that they’re not alone […] When they [drivers] see us, they have that little glimpse of hope.”
“This is my regular poll-greeter post,” said David Reddy, an older man sitting in a lawn chair at the curb, holding a Biden Harris sign. He told me he has many Trump supporters among his friends and family, but that he had no luck converting them because he was “a freaking Unitarian.” David was amazed at people his age who support the president: “they’re yelling at ya about socialism, and they got a handicap sticker in their window. It’s like, the state decided to give you a good parking place! The state’s being nice to you!”
COVID-19 seemed to be a minor concern at best for the organizers of the Trump rally, much like the one at the Sanford Airport a couple of weeks ago. In line to enter the event, organizers diligently took temperatures of attendees with contactless thermometers, not letting people spill around them like they’ve done in the past. An encouraging sign, but it was immediately undercut once we arrived to a second checkpoint where organizers were meant to make sure that everyone had a mask, ready to provide one if they didn’t. Very few people around me in line were already wearing one. “Do you have a mask?” A member of staff asked the young man in front of me, ready to hand him one from one of numerous full boxes on the table. “Uh, yeah,” he answered tentatively, searching his pockets. She waved him off, “it’s okay, I’ll take your word for it.” Once inside, the pretense of concern for public health was done away with altogether, as only around one in fifty people was wearing a mask in a crowd of thousands. Like the Sanford rally, there was no practice whatsoever to even keep a modicum of distance between groups: people crowded around the stage shoulder-to-shoulder like at a concert, with the density thinning out farther away from the stage.
The only concern addressed was the midday heat, which was very challenging, even for a relatively young and healthy person like myself. There was a large tent off to the side of the event space, where people gathered to cool off and rehydrate with bottled water provided by the campaign. When I arrived, it had a fifty-foot line going out the door, which initially left me thinking that it was the site of a secondary event, perhaps with more speakers and vendors. Once inside the shelter I realized what was going on, and found that the temperature was still overwhelming, as the number of people gathered made its own heat; but the chairs, water, and shade were worth it for the many elderly people and young children. Back outside, organizers were constantly walking through the crowd with cases of bottled water, and I availed myself of a couple of bottles before the President even arrived. An older woman in the crowd collapsed in the middle of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s speech, and he called for medical attention from the stage. When a paramedic arrived to help her, he casually commented about how unusually hot it was for this time of year, “but what are you gonna do?”
The overwhelming majority of the crowd was white, though just slightly more racially diverse than the one in Sanford. “People are mad that I’m even here,” said Terrence, one of the few black people in attendance. He was originally from Syracuse, New York, and found conflict with friends and family for his support of the President: “when your people from back home don’t understand why you’re making the decisions that you’re making and the reasons for them, it creates a lot of frustration.” He said his top issue is “keeping God in” public life, and appreciated Trump as a bulwark against the secularization of American life. “God is number one.” Asked whether he saw validity to the allegations of racism against the President, Terrence invoked the “Platinum Plan,” a two-page document circulated by the Trump campaign directed specifically at the black community. Some of it refers to legitimate victories from his first term, like the fact that Trump has secured long-term funding for historically black colleges and universities. Others parts – like onshoring manufacturing, or lowering the cost of education and healthcare – are promises that have no basis in how he has governed so far, and are actually trending in the opposite direction.
After the introductory speeches, a video lauding Donald Trump’s first term as president played on the big screen next to the stage. It featured dramatic music and voice-over reminiscent of an action movie trailer, claiming he has defeated the coronavirus (the Midwest is experiencing a record spike in cases) and lowered drug costs (by an executive order that he hasn’t enforced). The voice-over warned that while the president wanted to continue his streak of victories, “the swamp will fight him every step of the way!” Despite the distractions, the heat was taking its toll as people waited for the main event, and eventually a firetruck pulled up to the edge of the field and fired its water cannon in the air – an exciting display from afar that elicited cheers, and a welcome reprieve for those who got under the shower.
Trump eventually arrived, taking the stage with the First Lady to “God Bless the USA.” Melania briefly introduced him and thanked the crowd, calling Florida their “home state.” Donald took the podium to chants of “WE LOVE YOU!” and launched into his speech, repeating Melania’s “home state” comment. He claimed that electing Biden would cause “a recession the likes of which you’ve never seen,” and continued his recent trend of focusing on his opponent’s son, Hunter Biden, and his alleged corrupt practices on behalf of his father. While it is widely acknowledged that Hunter has traded on his family name, allegations of direct involvement or benefit to the former Vice President have not been substantiated. The claims nonetheless elicited a strong response from this crowd, who chanted “LOCK HIM UP!” and “WHERE IS HUNTER?”. Even though the President had only begun his speech, the crowd already started filtering out of the event space, perhaps finally overcome by the heat and reasonably satisfied with having gotten their glimpse of him.
A few hours later, former Vice President Joe Biden gave his speech across town at the Florida State Fairgrounds, in a socially distanced rally where guests remained in their vehicles. A line of dozens of cars stretched from the highway to the Fairgrounds entrance until the maximum capacity of 250 was reached, and the rest were turned away. Numerous Biden supporters parked along the side of the road adjacent to the Fairgrounds, waving signs and flags to passing motorists. Some cheered them on as they passed, others yelled or gestured insults.
Among the supporters was Bernadette, a New Jersey native who worked in Atlantic City in the 1980s: “we knew about him from New York city, we knew about him from the casinos. Too many people just know him from “The Apprentice”, and that’s what’s really a shame. They don’t do their homework.” Like many Biden supporters I’ve met before, she was more motivated by removing the current President from office than electing his opponent: “he’s not perfect, but certainly better than Trump.”
As the Biden crowd grew on the Fairgrounds side of the street, Trump supporters gathered in large numbers on the other side. A couple of them seemed interested in goading the Biden supporters into a confrontation, crossing the street and walking among them while shouting insults and livestreaming from their phones. I spoke with a Biden supporter dressed as Rosie the Riveter named Kate, who was in the middle of telling me that her top issue is healthcare: “it’s like another house payment,” she said. Our interview was suddenly cut short as a scuffle broke out behind me and Kate moved to end it. It involved a young Biden supporter and a security guard of Kaitlin Bennett, a darling provocatrice of the online far-right. Bennett runs the rightwing media outlet Liberty Hangout, which has a long history of engaging in racist, homophobic, and anti-democratic rhetoric. In a since-deleted tweet, Liberty Hangout once polled its audience on the veracity of the Holocaust, and when asked by another user for their opinion responded, “It doesn’t seem possible that 6 million were killed.”
Bennett’s guards were mute and flanked her wherever she went along with her cameraman, wearing black uniforms with “Rat Pack Worldwide Security” emblazoned on their backs. There were numerous other journalists at this event, from local to international press, with no security. As Kate broke up the fight and threatened to call the police on Bennett and her crew, Bennett goaded her and put the microphone in her face: “Aren’t the police racist? So, you’re going to call the racist police on a black man?” (One of Bennett’s guards was black.) Kate stood firm between Bennett’s team and the Biden supporter: “I’m done talking with you, I’m waiting for the police.” A local officer eventually broke up the argument. Both the Biden supporter and Bennet claimed to have video of the other initiating the conflict, but the cop eventually settled the situation without resorting to it. Any remaining tensions were extinguished when a sudden downpour forced both sides off the scene shortly thereafter.