One battleground state, two rallies — and dueling versions of reality

PHOENIX — Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris held rallies 30 miles apart here on Wednesday, six days before Election Day, in this battleground state poised to shape the outcome of the race.

But voters could be forgiven for thinking the candidates were running in two different universes.

In Trump’s world, the coronavirus crisis is exaggerated and the biggest danger to the country is a threat of socialism or communism, while top-of-mind issues include alleged corruption by Joe Biden’s son Hunter and a “deep state” of government officials plotting against the president.

In the Biden-Harris world, the pandemic is an overarching issue that is crippling middle class pocketbooks, health care access is threatened by an incompetent president, and the nation is on a knife edge between a return to normalcy and a march to authoritarianism.

Symbolic of the two attitudes, Trump’s rally featured supporters packing into a section of the Phoenix Goodyear Airport, many of them elbow-to-elbow and maskless, while Harris held a drive-in event that was sparse and heavily socially distanced, with attendees covering their faces even when nobody was near them.

Coronavirus cases are surging across the country, with a death toll that has topped 225,000. Scientists widely agree the deadly virus can be relatively contained if people adhere to social distancing guidelines and wear masks.

Trump boasted that he has done “a great job” with the virus. Many of his rally-goers doubted the official diagnosis figures, while others said elites were using the issue to control the population. Still others said the media was covering the pandemic to hurt Trump.

“I think it’s overblown. It’s a political ploy to keep people from voting,” said Michael Bieda, 53, of Buckeye, Arizona. “It’s a power that the opposite side could control people with.”

“There is so much politicization of Covid that I find it very hard to trust numbers,” said Dee Ann Kriebs, 74, of Goodyear, Arizona, who was wearing a red “MAGA” hat and cited the “deep state” as her top issue in the 2020 election.

“The deep state has to be eliminated in Washington,” she said.

Tammy Byler, an operations manager in Waddell, Arizona, said the panic surrounding Covid-19 “feels like communism trying to take over.”

Image: US-VOTE-TRUMP (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: US-VOTE-TRUMP (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images)

At her rally, Harris called the coronavirus a “one of the greatest mass casualty events that we as a nation have experienced since World War II,” and said Trump “covered it up.”

Rachael Clawson, a teacher in Mason, Arizona, said her husband worked in tourism and the virus had left her with a single-income household.

“If we don’t get the pandemic under control, what does that mean for his job?” she wondered, and added: “Access to health care is huge. We have three small kids and a history of chronic disease. It’s very scary to think about raising a young family without health insurance.”

'Creating a fictional world'

Clawson added that she worried about a march to authoritarianism if Trump is re-elected.

“He thinks Article II of the Constitution allows him to do whatever he wants,” she said, fretting that if voters give Trump four more years, “what permission does that give him to do?”

Kimberly Marteau, a 61-year-old lawyer visiting from Los Angeles, said the pandemic is “a huge concern.” She said she’s supporting Biden and Harris because they’ll “let the facts and science lead us.”

“Information and truth are our defense against someone who wants to create his own world when it’s not the reality on the ground,” she said.

The dueling rallies highlighted the extent to which Americans are voting not just on which set of policies to enact, but on which version of reality they believe to be true.

“Trump has always been about creating a fictional world that conforms to the one he’d like to be true,” Tony Schwartz, Trump's co-author in his book The Art Of The Deal, told NBC News. “What’s new is that he’s doing so now, repeatedly, in the face of unassailable facts that directly contradict what he’s claiming. Covid numbers are rising. The economy is still deeply troubled. And on and on.”

Nationally, Biden leads Trump by 7.8 points in the NBC News polling average. In Arizona, Biden leads Trump by 3.5 points in the FiveThirtyEight average, buoyed by defections from college-educated white voters and independents.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a mobile campaign event on Oct. 28, 2020, in Phoenix. (Sahil Kapur / NBC News)
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a mobile campaign event on Oct. 28, 2020, in Phoenix. (Sahil Kapur / NBC News)

The contrasting composition of the two crowds was stark. Trump’s crowd was predominantly white, and included many of the sort of older voters who have helped Republicans carry the state in all but one presidential election since 1952. Harris’s crowd was younger with a large share of Black and Hispanic voters, reflecting a rising Democratic-leaning electorate that is reshaping Arizona — and much of America.

The state is also home to a competitive Senate race in a close fight for control of the chamber, with appointed Republican Sen. Martha McSally trailing Democrat Mark Kelly in polls.

“The biggest problem we have is if they cheat with the ballots. That's my biggest problem,” Trump said, citing a concern of voter fraud that experts say is extremely rare in the U.S. and unlikely to influence any outcome.

To some Trump supporters, the coronavirus lockdowns were unnecessary.

Marlene Parsons, a retiree in Glendale, Arizona, said it was a “travesty that we had to go through this and ruin the economy.” She said the virus is not “as serious as the media portrays it to be” and refuses to wear a mask, “because it doesn’t make me feel good.”

But to Democrats, curtailing the virus is paramount, with many saying they wish Trump would listen more to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert.

“We can’t get back to normal until we get this virus under control,” said Steven Slugocki, the chair of the Maricopa County Democratic Party. “This is a campaign with reality and listening to the scientists; or propaganda from Fox News that Donald Trump insists on listening to instead of Dr. Fauci.”