LITITZ, Pa. — One way to understand this strange presidential campaign is to listen to it.
The roar of Air Force One as it descends amid cornfields here. The cheers of thousands of President Trump’s fans as they dance to a booming rendition of “YMCA.” And most importantly, the sound of the president himself, alternately tearing into his enemies and flattering his adoring crowds, his words reverberating into the air around him.
It’s harder to hear Joe Biden’s quiet campaign above that din — the stray honking of a few cars at a small socially distanced “drive-in rally” in Tampa on Thursday, or a solemn local TV interview or Zoom appearance where he again promises to restore the “character” of the nation.
As Trump faces reelection in what has become a referendum on his presidency and personality, it is possible that this very contrast in volume and tone could decide the outcome. Trump warns that a vote for Biden is a vote for “boredom.” But Biden’s allies are explicitly pitching him to a weary public as a break from the constant, high-pitched soundtrack of the Trump years.
Biden, they vow, unlike Trump, doesn’t need your constant attention to lead. He will let you tune him out — at least from time to time.
“With Joe and Kamala at the helm, you’re not going to have to think about the crazy things they said every day,” former president Barack Obama told voters in Philadelphia on Oct. 21. “You’re not going to have to argue about them every day. It just won’t be so exhausting.”
Trump’s preternatural ability to command eyeballs and hijack news cycles propelled his unlikely rise to the White House and helped him maintain the passionate, red-hatted base that still dotes on him. It began on an inauguration day with his stark evocation of the “American carnage” of lawlessness and economic devastation he said he had been elected to end, and then it devolved swiftly into an argument over whether his crowd was larger than Obama’s had been in 2008.
Substance, then, was met almost instantly by distraction and a stream of tweets — a preview of what was to come, as he took on refugees, immigrants, longstanding foreign allies, and social justice protesters, to name a few in a very long line of targets.
This year, on the trail, he has frequently knocked Biden as timid by comparison, for “hiding” in his basement in Delaware because of the pandemic, and he told his rally crowds that their enthusiasm and numbers show he will defy the polls again on Tuesday and win a second term.
But Trump’s vice-like grip on the American consciousness has never translated to majority support. He won four years ago with just 46 percent of the popular vote and has never cracked 50 percent approval in polls since taking office. His ubiquity has also led to an exhaustion among a portion of the electorate, who are tired of his voice and tweets echoing constantly in their minds. They may not fly flags, or ride in a golf cart parade, or attend a rally, or even have a yard sign, but they are ready for a change — and they are voting.
“There is nothing I can say that is positive about this man,” said Tish Jepsen, a former Republican who was attempting to vote early for Biden in Reading, Pa., this past week. “Everything that spews out of his mouth is negative and he’s a terrible influence and a terrible example for so many people.”
For those voters who don’t like Trump, or simply long to turn the page, it’s been hard to escape him.
Trump has generated a wall of talk over the past four years: hours-long, free-floating interviews with conservative media personalities, lengthy daily press conferences during the early days of the pandemic, and shock-and-awe Twitter posts that range from abruptly announcing troop withdrawals to cursing Black football players for protesting police brutality. There’s also the mountain of headlines, with the Russia investigation, palace intrigue at the White House, and the superspreader White House event that led to his COVID-19 diagnosis generating plotlines that seemed intricate enough for a drama series.
His sheer unpredictability riveted the nation four years ago, but there are signs Americans are paying less attention now while they grapple with a pandemic that’s taken more than 225,000 lives. When Trump and Biden held dueling televised town halls at the same time this month, more people tuned into Biden’s than Trump’s. Biden’s convention speech also attracted slightly higher ratings than the president’s, a nearly unthinkable occurrence, at least when compared to 2016, when CNN and other cable networks often carried Trump’s rallies live.
“It’s always dangerous for a president to be on television every day,” said David Gergen, who advised several presidents and was communications director for Ronald Reagan. “Once you become overexposed, people start tuning out. Trump is one of the most overexposed human beings on the face of the earth.”
Biden talks about health care, and climate change, and restoring the “soul” of the nation, but a subtler message of his campaign — tapping into the electorate’s longing for a break — slipped out inadvertently during the first presidential debate. After Trump repeatedly interrupted him, Biden cried out in annoyance, “Will you shut up, man?”
If it seems like Trump looms larger than other presidents, it’s because he does.
“Trump is in our minds in a way that no president has been since Roosevelt,” said Patrick Maney, a presidential historian at Boston College. Franklin Delano Roosevelt reached voters through “fireside chats” on the radio, winning over passionate fans — and making fierce enemies — who felt a personal connection to the man as he led the country through the Great Depression and World War II.
But unlike Roosevelt and other presidents, Trump doesn’t use his direct connection to voters to convey a sense of comforting calm or authority. Instead, the former reality TV star keeps Americans on the edge of their seats, frequently urging people to stay tuned to find out how he’ll decide something, or using Twitter to make surprise announcements. “Most presidents have aimed for a certain consistency; President Trump cultivates inconsistency, which means that every day there is the strong possibility of a surprise,” said H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas.
This edginess and element of suspense have attracted legions of fans who never tire of hearing him speak and see his willingness to talk bluntly as a sign of authenticity.
“I know what he’s going to say already, but I wanted to be here one time,” said Terry Berl, a 68-year-old Trump fan who had watched hours of the president’s rallies online before attending the one here in person on Monday. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
About a third of the electorate is like Berl — a loyal part of the Trump base — while another quarter consists of Republicans and independents who go back and forth in their support, many turned off by his personality, according to Republican pollster Ed Goeas. Lately, surveys suggest most of those independents are backing Biden, driving his lead over Trump in the polls.
“Sometimes I’ve wondered why he wasn’t reaching out beyond them more,” Goeas said of Trump’s base. “He’s always had a sense that he needs to keep that group stirred up.”
But the more Trump stirred up the base, the more he drove other people to dislike him, or at least to wish his White House season over.
Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant in Pennsylvania, said he noticed independent voters began expressing exhaustion with Trump in the open-ended answers, called “verbatims,” they gave to pollsters in surveys conducted after he was elected.
“You’d see verbatims from people that were like, ‘I’m tired of always having to watch the news. I’m tired of doomscrolling to find out what weird things are happening at Friday night at 8 o’clock with a special prosecutor,’” he said. Biden’s allies are playing on that exhaustion in Pennsylvania, with one super PAC running an ad promising that the former vice president doesn’t need to always be the center of attention.
In that context, Biden’s low-key campaign, which has eschewed large events due to coronavirus concerns, sends a political message, not just a public health one.
“Obviously Biden would be having many more events outside of Delaware if there wasn’t a pandemic, but I think presenting himself as someone who is not going to be needing that kind of attention or demanding that kind of attention all the time seems to be part of his campaign strategy,” said Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University.
As precedents, Schulman pointed to Warren Harding in 1920, who ran for president on a message of returning to normalcy following the larger-than-life presidency of Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter in 1976, who vowed to be a plain-talking guy who would never lie to the American people as Richard Nixon had done during Watergate.
The contrast this time might be even starker.
Biden represented a tiny state in the Senate and gained fame as the trusty sidekick to Obama, remaining firmly in his shadow for eight years. His political origin story revolves around the grief of losing his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash; and now, the loss of his eldest son to cancer, which he frequently talks about on the campaign trail.
Trump’s career has been one of relentlessly seeking publicity, first as a real estate developer who craved coverage in the New York tabloids, and then through his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.”
One offers deliberative calm and quiet. Another promises non-stop action that will never leave you bored.
“If you had ‘Sleepy Joe’ nobody’s going to be interested in politics anymore,” Trump warned at a rally in Erie this month.
In a year of sickness, mass protests, and economic strife, that threat may not have the effect the president expects.
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.