Trump targets adversaries in his final pitch, while Biden focuses on Covid-19

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden barnstormed battleground states on the eve of Election Day.
  • Trump's rallies look a lot like 2016, but the populist economic message that fueled his last campaign is absent this time.
  • Biden spent the day in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Democrats need to win back white, working-class voters who defected to Trump in 2016.
US President Donald Trump arrives for a Make America Great Again rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport November 2, 2020, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For President Donald Trump's campaign, election eve this year looks, in many ways, a lot like it did four years ago.

On that Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, Trump barnstormed through five states, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Michigan, where thousands of red-hatted supporters stood in line for hours to wave Make America Great Again signs.

On Monday, Trump again held rallies in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, then was set to hold two rallies Monday night in Michigan. 

But while the photos look similar and the signs haven't changed, Trump's closing pitch to voters this year bears little resemblance to the final stump speeches of his first successful campaign for president.

Trump's grievances

The economic populism that fueled Trump's meteoric rise to the presidency is all but gone this time around. His speeches contain barely any mention of the issues that won over voters in 2016: Bringing back manufacturing jobs, cutting taxes, striking better trade deals and ending foreign wars.

Instead, Trump's closing argument this year amounts to a laundry list of his personal grievances against government agencies, courts, voting laws, individual journalists and TV hosts, pollsters, tech companies, medical experts and so on.

At his rallies on Monday afternoon, Trump drew up an enemies list that included the Supreme Court, CNN, Fox News polling, Twitter, the experts running the FDA's vaccine approval process, former special counsel Robert Mueller and people who don't give him credit for all the coronavirus pandemic deaths he claims America avoided because of federal actions.

Trailing in the polls, Trump has leaned into his tendency to portray himself as a victim, expanding what used to be short riffs within his standard stump speeches so that now they occupy large swaths of his speech.

"The only way to convince people that you're not a loser is to convince them that you're a victim," Amanda Carpenter, a former communications director for GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, recently told The New York Times. "Having something be rigged against him is the ultimate ego protector, because he never has to admit that he lost."

CNBC reached out to the Trump campaign about the increasingly personal tone of Trump's stump speech, but they did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The other piece of Trump's closing argument, his attacks on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, are growing increasingly apocalyptic. He told supporters in Pennsylvania that Biden "will totally destroy Pennsylvania" and that he will turn America into Venezuela.

"Joe Biden is a globalist who spent 47 years outsourcing your jobs, opening your borders and sacrificing American blood and treasure on ridiculous, endless foreign wars most of you have never even heard of," Trump said.

While polls show Biden leading both nationally and across many of the key swing states, surveys have shown the race tightening this week, as Trump has embarked upon a frenetic daily schedule of up to five rallies a day. The rallies have drawn huge crowds, reminiscent of 2016, irrespective of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has upended American life.

But while the pandemic seemed like an afterthought at Trump's packed and largely mask-free rallies on Monday, for Biden it was front and center.

Biden stays on message

The former vice president's final day of campaigning included stops in Ohio and then Pennsylvania, where he delivered a message that has changed very little in the past three months.

The central point of Biden's 11th-hour pitch to voters remains that Trump has not and will not take the necessary steps to control the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 230,000 American lives this year.

"Donald Trump waved the white flag of surrender to this virus," Biden said at a campaign stop in Cleveland on Monday. "I'm never gonna  raise the white flag of surrender. We're gonna beat this virus, and we're gonna get it under control, I promise you. But the first step to beating the virus is beating Donald Trump."

Biden also emphasized national unity and an end to the hyper-partisanship that has characterized much of Trump's time in office.

Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Get Out The Vote event in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., November 2, 2020.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

"The only thing that can tear America apart is America itself," Biden said in Mocana, Pennsylvania, during the second leg of his travel Monday. "That's exactly what Donald Trump has been doing from the beginning of his campaign: Dividing America. Pitting Americans against one another based on race, gender, ethnicity, national origin. That's wrong. That's not who we are."

Biden also made another pitch to a key group of voters whose defection from the Democratic Party in 2016 is widely seen as the biggest single factor in Trump's victory: White, working-class voters in the Midwest.

And as Trump has dropped many of his most populist economic messages, Biden has added them to his own pitch, part of a clear effort to win back the 2016 defectors.

"I grew up around guys like Donald Trump," Biden said Monday in Cleveland. "I grew up in neighborhoods like probably many of you did, working-class neighborhoods, where most people didn't have a college education. But we had guys like Trump that we used to play against when we played ball ... and because they had more money and we didn't, they would look down their noses on us."

But on the eve of Election Day, the question of whether or not Biden and the Democrats can win back these middle-class, economy-focused voters is still very much up in the air.

Polling averages show Biden in a dead heat with Trump in Ohio, leading by around 5 points in Pennsylvania and leading by more than 5 points in Michigan.

All three states are viewed by both the Biden and Trump campaigns as crucial contests.