The deluge of early votes for Tuesday’s US presidential election has topped 70m – the equivalent of more than half of all votes cast in 2016 – as Donald Trump brazenly listed one of the highlights of his presidency as “ending the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Trump’s claim, delivered in a White House press release, came in a week that has seen days of record new infections, daily deaths running at almost 1,000 a day, and a 23% increase in cases.
As the US president prepared to return to the key battleground state of Florida for a rally in Tampa on Thursday, Trump and his campaign continued to pursue its tactic of minimising a pandemic that has claimed at least 226,000 lives and continues to rage in many parts of the country.
While Democrat Joe Biden entered the final week of campaigning with a nine percentage point lead in national polls, the margin in key battleground states – including Florida and Pennsylvania – remained closer.
In some hotly contested states, turnout for early voting was even higher than the national figure, including Florida, where the equivalent of two-thirds of those who voted in 2016 have voted.
In Texas – which the influential Cook Political Report on Wednesday moved from “lean Republican” to a “toss-up” between Biden and Trump – the figure was 87%.
Democratic luminaries in the state, such as former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, have been begging Biden to make a visit there in the closing days. The campaign is offering the vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, instead, who will visit Fort Worth, Houston and the border city of McAllen on Friday.
But it was the coronavirus pandemic that continued to dominate the agenda. Asked about Trump’s claim to have “ended it”, even the White House communications director, Alyssa Farah, struggled to defend the assertion.
“I think that was poorly worded,” Farah told Fox news. “The intent was to say that it is our goal to end the virus. But what I would say is this, because of the president’s leadership, we are rounding the corner on the virus.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed that the coverage of coronavirus has been weaponised and exaggerated by the media to damage his chances of re-election. “Covid, Covid, Covid is the unified chant of the Fake News Lamestream Media,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.
“They will talk about nothing else until November 4th., when the Election will be (hopefully!) over. Then the talk will be how low the death rate is, plenty of hospital rooms, & many tests of young people.”
Trump was seemingly nettled by a mocking speech delivered by Barack Obama in Florida on Tuesday, following a similar venting about Covid coverage from the president at a rally last weekend.
“What’s his closing argument? That people are too focused on Covid. He said this at one of his rallies: ‘Covid, Covid, Covid,’ he’s complaining. He’s jealous of Covid’s media coverage,” Obama said.
Biden aimed for a far more realistic tone, in a speech in Wilmington, Delaware. “Even if I win, it’s going to take a lot of hard work to end this pandemic,” he said. “I’m not running on the false promises of being able to end this pandemic by flipping a switch. But I do promise this: we will start on day one doing the right things.”
He said Trump’s attitude towards the pandemic was “insulting” to the families all across America who are suffering.
Biden has said that he will listen to the science and the first person he will call if he’s elected will be Dr Anthony Fauci, the top public health expert on the White House coronavirus taskforce, who has served presidents since 1984 but whom Trump has recently called an idiot.
On Wednesday Fauci warned in a virtual interview for Melbourne University that although he is confident a successful vaccine will be here within a few months, normal life may not be restored for Americans until late 2021 or even 2022.
In the last week of the campaign, the dynamics of the electoral college – which Trump won in 2016 despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton – appeared to be defining the campaigning schedules of the two candidates.
With Trump focusing on midwestern states he needs to hold to stay in office, Biden was planning to visit Iowa later in the week – a state Trump carried by 10 points in 2016.
Of particular concern has been polling in Pennsylvania, where Biden’s current lead in a state that is key for both candidates is just 5.1 points – leading some to suggest that if polling errors seen in 2016 were replicated, the state might be close to a tie
Commenting on the tightening Pennsylvania race, Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight polling website underlined its importance.
“It is close to being a must-win for Trump, who has only a 2% chance of winning the electoral college if he loses Pennsylvania. Biden, however, has a bit more margin for error.”
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, announced that the candidate and Obama will campaign together at the weekend for the first time, in the battleground of Michigan.
Also, late in the day the US supreme court rejected a last-ditch Republican effort to stop mail-in ballots being counted in Pennsylvania after election day.
And the identity of Anonymous, a Trump official who claimed there was a “a quiet resistance” within the administration working to save America in a 2018 New York Times op-ed, was revealed as Republican Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security.
The penning of the article, and a subsequent book on the same theme, sparked a slew of media coverage and wild Washington speculation as to the identity of the author. It also angered Donald Trump and many of his top officials, who launched a frantic and unsuccessful hunt for the mole throughout the White House staff and beyond.
Predictably, Trump attacked him on Twitter.