The two US presidential candidates swung through northern battleground states on Friday amid signs that the coronavirus pandemic was once more threatening to overcome hospital capacity in several US regions.
Donald Trump was due to hold a succession of airport rallies in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, while Joe Biden was scheduled to have drive-in rallies in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The trip to Minnesota marked a rare defensive move for the Democratic challenger, who held a low double-digit lead in new polls published with four days left of the election campaign. Hillary Clinton narrowly held Minnesota in 2016 and the latest polls show Biden with a five-point margin.
But he told reporters: “I don’t take anything for granted. We’re going to work for every single vote up until the last minute.”
The president insisted the state was vulnerable.
“I think it’s going to flip for the first time since 1972,” he said, claiming he had stopped rioting there following the police killing of George Floyd in May, which sparked the Black Lives Matter protests.
Before setting out from Washington on Friday morning, Trump railed against the supreme court for ruling to allow election officials in North Carolina to accept votes received by 12 November as long as they are postmarked by 3 November.
“This decision is CRAZY and so bad for our Country. Can you imagine what will happen during that nine-day period,” Trump said on Twitter.
He has been similarly critical of a parallel supreme court decision this week to allow Pennsylvania to extend its count. His new appointee to the court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, did not take part in the decisions as, according to the court, she had not had time to review the arguments.
Behind in the polls, the Republicans have put significant effort in campaign endgame focusing on procedural and legal attempts to suppress the turnout or the vote count. Trump has said he wants a result on 3 November, but by law states have until 8 December to finalise their returns.
The president has sought to concentrate his message on law and order and on the economy, highlighting economic data that showed a substantial rebound in the third quarter of 2020. But the shadow of coronavirus was hard to avoid.
There were 88,521 new cases of the coronavirus reported in the US on Thursday – a record single-day high – according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and – 9,540 more cases than on Wednesday. On Friday, total US cases surpassed 9m, with the death toll closing in on 230,000.
Healthcare statistics, which the Trump administration classified but were obtained by National Public Radio, showed hospitals in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Baltimore, reaching 80% capacity, while certain hospitals in Tampa, Birmingham and New York were over 95% capacity in intensive care beds.
Trump’s standing has been hit by his insistence on playing down the seriousness of the pandemic but he showed no sign of changing course on Friday, complaining that the Minnesota authorities had limited the size of his rally there to 250.
He told a mostly mask-free crowd in Waterford Township: “You have to open up your states. We gotta get our governor to open up our state here, don’t we? Don’t worry, on November 4, all these Democrat-run states will be open.”
The president also repeated an entirely unfounded smear of the medical profession that has become a staple of his rallies: “You know, our doctors get more money if someone dies from Covid, you know that right?”
Recent coronavirus testing in Minnesota has shown a 12% positive rate, and large numbers of hospital staff are reported to be off work because of infection.Nationwide, more than 1,700 healthcare workers are reported to have died of Covid-19.
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, told Fox News on Thursday night that the Covid-19 death toll now was “almost nothing” and that critics of his father’s hands-off approach were “truly morons”.
Trump rallied Friday afternoon in Green Bay, Wisconsin, as the battleground state faced a surge in coronavirus cases, with nearly 200 Wisconsinites dying of the virus in the past week alone. Photos showed no social distancing and infrequent mask usage.
“We’re going to win Wisconsin,” Trump told the crowd. “You are so lucky I’m your president.”
Recent polls of Wisconsin, which Trump won by less than one point in 2016, have shown Biden leading by an average of about nine points, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Biden held a drive-in rally in Des Moines, Iowa, his first of three such rallies on Friday, where polls show the Democratic nominee and the president locked in a close race. The former vice-president told the crowd, amid a flurry of honking horns: “Folks, we cannot afford another four years of Donald Trump.”
Biden noted Iowa handed him and Barack Obama two victories in 2008 and 2012, and he hopes to continue that winning streak on Tuesday.
Echoing his closing message in recent days, Biden said: “I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I’ll govern as an American president.”
The contenders embarked on their northern swings with the election already more than half over, in voting terms. About 84 million people are reported by the US Elections Project to have already voted, by postal ballot or early voting in person, 61% of the total turnout in 2016. In Texas and Hawaii, that figure was over 100%, meaning more people had already voted than the total turnout four years ago.
Kamala Harris, who was campaigning in Texas on Friday, told reporters, “Texas has so much at stake in this election and they deserve to be heard, they deserve to be engaged by us because we intend to earn every vote.”
Biden hasn’t visited the state since March, during the primary elections, and has no plans to do so. The Lone Star state has long been reliably Republican, but the Cook Political Report has said the election is a genuine toss-up, with polls finding Biden closely trailing Trump.
Going into the weekend, Biden held a comfortable, nine-point national lead in polling averages, and multiple recent polls have depicted an even larger lead in the popular vote for Biden. In the latest Opinium Research/Guardian poll, released on Friday, Biden led Trump by 14 points, 55-41.
The poll, which surveyed 2,009 US adults online from 26-29 October, found severe deterioration for Trump among some of his most reliable supporters, including white voters, a group he won by 15 points in 2016, and which no Republican presidential candidate has lost for 50 years. Biden holds a narrow, 49-47 lead among white voters, the poll found.
The poll additionally found that a 57% majority of likely 2020 voters who did not vote in 2016 supported Biden.
Maanvi Singh contributed reporting