Honking horns, huge American flags and pop superstar Lady Gaga: on the eve of the presidential election, Joe Biden brought an air of spectacle to workers’ stronghold Pittsburgh as he capped a campaign largely curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The power’s in your hands, Pennsylvania!” the Democratic White House nominee thundered late Monday to several hundred supporters gathered for a drive-in rally in what has become the pivotal state in Biden’s battle against President Donald Trump.
“It’s time to stand up and take back our democracy,” the 77-year-old added, prompting a crescendo of car horns outside the stadium that is home to the Pittsburgh Steelers American football team.
In the biting November cold, Biden took up the clarion call of a campaign that he launched 18 months ago: “This is a battle for the soul of America,” he said. “We have to win this.”
Lady Gaga, clad in a white sweatshirt with “Joe” printed on the front, listened and applauded from her stage.
Minutes earlier she had peeled off her gloves and sat down at a white piano to give a short but inspired musical warmup to the Biden headliner.
“Gloves off because it’s a fight — a fight for what you believe in,” she said before launching into her hit “Shallow.”
The 34-year-old Grammy winner called on the audience to vote for Biden because “we needed somebody that was going to bring us all together for this moment, for this very important moment.”
“No matter who wins tomorrow, we’re going to have to do this together. Tomorrow’s got to be peaceful,” she added somberly, in an allusion to the tensions that have swelled in the United States ahead of the poll.
The singer, who once lived in Pennsylvania, has been in this position before. In 2016, she helped close out the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton, who lost in a shocker to Trump.
– ‘End of Trump era?’ –
Dancing in the parking lot was Jamie Scafuri, a 26-year-old hairdresser, who came with friends invited by someone who works for the campaign.
“We’re hoping that it’s the end of the Trump era,” Scafuri told AFP. “We’re hopeful. That’s why we’re here.”
These drive-in rallies have become a staple of the Democrat’s mostly low-key campaign, which has scrupulously adhered to social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines to guard against the coronavirus, which has already killed more than 230,000 Americans.
But despite efforts to put on a show at least partly resembling concert-infused mega-rallies that have traditionally marked the end of a campaign, the cars parked at distance, sparse spectators and few journalists allowed to enter makes it clear: the pandemic has upset the face of American politics in 2020.
“Stay close to your cars!” urged an announcer as fans rushed forward for the arrival of Lady Gaga, in scenes far removed from the massive Trump rallies that often bring thousands of supporters packed together, very often without wearing masks.
But here, Biden’s supporters understand the constraints.
“I feel safe being here around our car with masks on, but it’s a great opportunity to celebrate life for sure,” Scafuri said.
Biden is “a pro-science, pro-health care candidate, so it makes sense that he would want to protect his constituents,” added Scafuri’s friend Katie Soulen, 32, who owns the salon where they work.
– Trump ‘don’t care’ about us –
Biden is coming full circle with his campaign. The former vice president launched his White House candidacy — his third, following disastrous bids in 1988 and 2008 — in April 2019 in this blue-collar city.
Even then, in the cradle of the American steel industry now remaking itself as a tech hub, Biden predicted that a victory against the Republican president would “happen here,” in Pennsylvania.
Biden has a slight lead in the pivotal state, which Trump won by less than a percentage point in 2016.
But the polls have tightened in recent days, and after the brash billionaire’s shock victory four years ago, some Democrats are nervous.
But Bob Wilson, born and raised “right where we stand” in Pittsburgh, is confident that Trump will be defeated.
“No, we’re gonna crush him… We’re gonna beat him in every state,” the 68-year-old retired truck driver, now a union official, said as he waited for Biden in the large parking lot at Heinz Field, named after the giant food processing company founded here in the 19th century.
Trump is “not qualified” and “don’t care about nobody but himself,” he added.