Trump Rallies Have Crowds. Biden Rallies Have Cars. Both Are OK With That.

WASHINGTON — For President Trump, the only thing that really matters is the size of his crowds. For Joseph R. Biden Jr., the road to the White House is full of honking cars.

As the two candidates for president closed out the final weekend of the 2020 campaign, which is unfolding in the middle of a health crisis, their venues not only contrasted their radically different positions on the coronavirus pandemic but offered revealing windows into the core of their political identities.

Mr. Trump is defined by his obsession with the size of his rallies, an almost inevitable bookend to his boastful exaggerations about the number of people who attended his inauguration four years ago. For the president, campaigning is a show, and its success is defined by the ratings that come with it: the crowds.

Mr. Biden has abandoned that instinct for large turnout in favor of drive-in rallies that underscore a central message of his campaign: that he will be more responsible than Mr. Trump in the face of a deadly pandemic. Mr. Biden’s socially distanced rallies, which draw hundreds, not thousands, of people in their vehicles, are the physical manifestation of his willingness to sacrifice numbers for safety.

Both men put those competing identities on display as they dashed across battleground states over the weekend.

Mr. Trump was holding rallies in five states on Sunday after spending a full day in Pennsylvania on Saturday. As he crisscrossed the country, the president repeatedly marveled at the thousands of people who had turned out to see him and viciously mocked the smaller gatherings for his Democratic rival.

“And then you’d have like two cars honk — honk, honk,” Mr. Trump said in Washington, Mich., on Sunday, as he complained repeatedly about the cold wind and the snow that fell throughout his remarks.

ImageA supporter of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at a rally in Detroit on Saturday.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Mr. Trump bragged about attracting bigger crowds than Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama, who campaigned together on Saturday. “I hate to say it, Obama doesn’t draw any better,” he said. “They went as a twosome and they had less people.”

Mr. Trump enters his rallies to pounding music and crowds roaring their approval — with few people wearing masks — as he throws Make America Great Again hats into the stands like T-shirts at a basketball game. Aides say that he feeds off the energy of his audiences, and that the rallies have convinced Mr. Trump that he will win despite polls showing him trailing in almost all of the competitive states.

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“A great red wave is forming,” Mr. Trump said on Saturday in Newtown, Pa. “As sure as we’re here together, that wave is forming. And they see it, they see it on all sides, and there’s not a thing they can do about it.”

Jason Miller, a senior adviser for Mr. Trump’s campaign, said the president “loves campaigning” and is always eager for “the input from people outside the Beltway.”

But Mr. Trump is less enthusiastic when the input comes from smaller crowds. On Saturday morning, as he spoke to only about 300 people at his first Pennsylvania rally of the day, Mr. Trump was lethargic and subdued, as if he were privately thinking to himself: Yawn.

The night before, the president stalked off the stage in Rochester, Minn., after speaking for less than 30 minutes before a tiny crowd in a state where gatherings are limited to no more than 250 people. Mr. Trump claimed that there were “at least 25,000 people who wanted to be here tonight,” and said that his supporters were “barred from entry by radical Democrats.”

On Sunday, Mr. Trump also had rallies scheduled in Dubuque, Iowa; Hickory, N.C.; Rome, Ga.; and Opa-Locka, Fla. — the last one at 11 p.m.

Mr. Biden held campaign events in Michigan on Saturday and in Pennsylvania on Sunday, but with a twist: His supporters attend his rallies in their cars to ensure social distancing in the midst of the pandemic.

On a rainy Sunday evening in Philadelphia, Mr. Biden addressed supporters at a park where cars were parked on a muddy field. Earlier in the day, he appeared at another drive-in event outside a church in the city. And on Saturday, Mr. Obama joined him for drive-in rallies in Flint, Mich., and Detroit.

At the event in Flint, Mr. Obama mocked his successor for his “obsession” with crowd size, asking: “Did no one come to his birthday party when he was a kid? Was he traumatized?” He cited a recent study by Stanford researchers estimating that rallies held by Mr. Trump had resulted in tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases.

Mr. Biden has also faulted Mr. Trump for endangering his own supporters.

“I’m being responsible and I’m not becoming a great spreader of Covid,” Mr. Biden said last week, making explicit the distinction that he has been trying to draw for months. Mr. Trump, he said, is “putting thousands of people at risk.”

Mr. Biden’s drive-in rallies may be a campaign trail novelty, but they provide a way for his campaign to excite supporters in key areas and attract local news media coverage, much like a traditional rally would, while also observing public-health precautions.

“It’s a great way to show the enthusiasm and get the feeling of a campaign while being Covid safe,” said Jenn Ridder, the national states director for the Biden campaign. “People love them. They love the honking and the noise. I think people want to feel part of something, and especially in Covid.”

The drive-in events have smaller audiences than the big rallies that would be expected at the end of a typical presidential campaign. About 180 cars were on hand for the Flint rally, for example, while the rally in Detroit had 450 cars.

But the format allows for something that has been missing when Mr. Biden gives speeches during the pandemic in front of small groups of reporters: audible feedback from the crowd, even if it is different from the applause at Mr. Trump’s rallies.

“The horns can be really cool as far as call and response,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II of Michigan, who spoke at the rallies in Flint and Detroit. “You have people kind of sitting on top of their cars, or hanging out the window.”

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“It kind of personifies this campaign,” Mr. Gilchrist added. “Joe Biden is a person who values human connection.”

Mr. Biden has played off the format at times. “Honk if you want America to lead again,” he said in Philadelphia. “Honk if you want Americans to begin to trust each other again. And honk if you want America to be united again.”

The crowd responded with a burst of beeping.

For attendees, it is a new experience, and they have different approaches to taking in the proceedings. Some people stay inside their cars, allowing easy access to honking. Others stand near their cars, a position that allows for sign hoisting or flag waving. Some open their car doors and stand in the doorways, giving them better views. Still more sit on their roofs, providing the highest vantage point of all.

The rallies also offer a unique opportunity for artistic expression, with voters decorating their cars to show their support for Mr. Biden. At a drive-in rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines on Friday, Nancy Bobo, 68, plastered her S.U.V. with signs, some of them homemade.

Only after she made the signs did she realize she had made a mistake on one of them. It was the kind of mistake that could be made only in preparation for a Biden rally: She misspelled “malarkey” on a sign that declared, “No more malarky!”

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Thomas Kaplan from Flint, Mich.

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