Trump, Biden deliver closing arguments as millions decide nation's future with their vote

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President Trump and former Vice President Biden disagree on the statistics regarding immigration reform. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Millions of Americans head to the polls Tuesday for a presidential election that will determine the path the nation takes to conquer the coronavirus, resuscitate the economy and bridge deep divisions over racial injustice, foreign policy and the meaning of leadership at a pivotal moment in U.S. history.

Months of campaigning by President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have underscored the polarization that will confront whoever wins, a headwind that will have to be navigated if the country is to make progress against a once-a-century pandemic that has killed some 230,000 Americans and left millions out of work.

Throughout the long and often bitter presidential race there have been signs that voters grasp the weight of the choice before them: Nearly 100 million Americans had cast a ballot in the contest before the first Election Day polling place opened, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Elections Project, putting the nation on track for historic voter turnout.

“There’s no downplaying the importance of this election,” said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who said he understands why so many Americans view Tuesday’s election as the most consequential of their lifetime.

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“I can understand the anxiety. The world is unsettling and our role in the world is less than it used to be,” he said. “But America is going to survive and it’s going to prosper.”

Closing arguments 

Trump and Biden crisscrossed the country in the final hours of the campaign, delivering closing arguments in a series of events Monday that highlighted their vastly different styles as much as their competing policy visions. Trump, eager to project an impression of normalcy during the pandemic, held large rallies Monday in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – all top tier battlegrounds in the race. 

“This election comes down to a simple choice: Do you want to be ruled by the arrogant, corrupt, ruthless and selfless political class, or do you want to be governed by the American people themselves?” Trump asked supporters at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “I am your voice.” 

Biden, who has limited attendance and practiced social distancing at his campaign stops, focused his election eve efforts heavily on Pennsylvania. The state, which backed President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and flipped to Trump in 2016, is one of the biggest prizes in the Electoral College. Biden was also scheduled to campaign in Ohio, where polling has also indicated a close race. 

“Tomorrow we have an opportunity to put an end to a presidency that’s divided this nation,” Biden said at a drive-in rally in Cleveland, Ohio. “My message is simple: The power to change the country is in your hands…It’s time for Donald Trump to pack his bags and go home. We’re done. We’re done with the chaos.” 

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Though well worn by now, their stump speeches have offered clues about how the country would look under their leadership over the next four years. Trump’s reelection would represent a further repudiation of politics as they were practiced in Washington for decades, a smaller role for the federal government in tackling the coronavirus, a continued push to the right on immigration and more conservative judges.  

A Biden win would usher in a return to “normalcy,” as Democrats see it – or at least less drama at the White House – a more aggressive role for Washington in addressing the pandemic, a greater emphasis on dealing with climate change and moving away from fossil fuels and a return to the global alliances that emerged after World War II.

“Biden has been much more of a globalist,” said Tom Davis, a former GOP congressman from Virginia. “Trump is much more ‘America first.’ That would be reflected in policy on things like the climate accords, the Iran agreement and everything else.”

Every presidential election offers Americans an opportunity to twist the nation’s ideological dial. Rarely has a contest put on display such a stark contrast in approach to running the country, with Trump promising to continue the pugilistic style supporters see as establishment breaking and opponents view as dangerous. Biden, who has emphasized his character, has promised to lower the temperature, despite partisan rancor in Washington that predated Trump and will almost certainly survive him. 

How much either man would be able to pursue their agenda would turn in part on control of the Senate, which is also up for grabs on Tuesday. Democrats hope to pick up a net gain of three seats – which would give them control of the Senate if Biden wins – by toppling incumbents in states such as Maine and Arizona. Democrats are widely expected to retain control of the House of Representatives. 

Echoes of 2016

Trump started 2020 in a strong position for reelection, with an economy that was humming, a freshly inked trade deal with Mexico and Canada and an impeachment that, predictably, ended in a swift acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate. 

But then coronavirus struck, reshaping the landscape of the campaign as it upended the lives of everyone on the planet. Unable to threaten or cajole the virus into submission, Trump was put on defense as the federal government failed to roll out nationwide testing or contact tracing, leaving those responsibilities instead to individual states.  

The president was left with an argument that the pandemic could have been worse in the United States, even though the nation has one of the world’s highest infection and death rates when adjusted for population. Trump has publicly feuded with his own top scientists, drawn fire for endorsing therapies such as hydroxychloroquine that were later abandoned and was diagnosed with the virus himself after ignoring public health recommendations.    

As Trump pressured states to reopen businesses, churches and schools he faced another crisis: the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The incident led to protests and violence in some cities and altered the course of the race. Trump’s decision to clear a park of peaceful protesters near the White House in June so he could pose with a Bible at a nearby church prompted immense, bipartisan blowback. Polls at the time showed widespread support for the Black Lives Matter protests, including among suburban independent voters. 

Throughout the summer, Trump conflated the peaceful protests with the violence and managed to shift the focus on the latter. And while that handed him the opportunity to frame himself as the “law and order” candidate on the side of police, it also exposed the gap between a country that is growing more diverse and a GOP that draws most of its support from white voters.

Biden’s lead in national polls grew to double digits in the early fall, and the former vice president was up by healthy margins in virtually all of the nation’s battleground states. But the race tightened after the final presidential debate on Oct. 22. Trump has campaigned relentlessly, frequently holding multiple rallies a day. 

Biden was up Monday by just over 6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent nationwide polling. He held an 8-point lead over Trump in a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll taken after the final debate in Nashville. That gap reflects little change since the survey was conducted at Labor Day, the unofficial start of the fall campaign season, when the former vice president led by 7 points. 

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All of it has led to handwringing among Democrats about the potential for a repeat of 2016, when the party was confident Hillary Clinton would win and was stunned when she did not. Party officials say the fundamentals of the race are different this time: The virus has acted as an anchor on Trump and Biden is viewed more favorably than Clinton.

Trump, on the other hand, predicts the prognosticators are falling into the same trap.  

As always, the outcome of the race will be decided in a handful of states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina among them. Trump must win more of those battlegrounds than Biden, giving him a narrower path to victory. But that same dynamic was in play four years ago, when Trump toppled the “blue wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to cruise to victory.  

“Hot take: Democrats being nervous wrecks is why we’ll win,” predicted Josh Schwerin of Priorities USA Action, a political action committee that supports Democrats. 

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Uniting, someday

Given the narrow margins and Trump’s longstanding – and baseless – claims of a “rigged” election, Republicans and Democrats are both bracing for a drawn out legal battle similar to the fight that settled the 2000 election between President George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, have been preparing for possible unrest, regardless of who wins.

In one striking display of that concern, authorities were seen erecting additional fencing around the White House on Monday. Similar barriers were installed in Washington at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer but some of that fencing was removed weeks later.

Yet party stalwarts in both camps have also started thinking about whether and how the nation can come together – or at least ease tensions – once the votes are counted. 

That will take leadership from Congress, the political parties and from the state and local communities, said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.

“It takes a few good women and men who will stand up and say, ‘OK, enough already. We’re going to get something done that’s right for the country,'” Lott said. “Do we have that? That is the question.

“You’ve got to be prepared to talk to people sensibly, but it’s going to take some courage,” he added. “And that’s – that’s what remains to be seen.”

Contributing: David Jackson and Courtney Subramanian 

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