Rally turnouts belie opinion polls

Mr Donald Trump's supporters holding banners at the Cleveland rally on Oct 22, 2016.
Mr Donald Trump's supporters holding banners at the Cleveland rally on Oct 22, 2016. ST PHOTO: PAUL ZACH

The New York billionaire seemed to bask in the adulation as he walked to the podium to shouts of "Trump! Trump! Trump!"

At least 5,000 diehard Donald Trump supporters had turned up to cheer for their chosen candidate on Saturday (yesterday morning, Singapore time) in this Democratic stronghold where rival Hillary Clinton's rally had pulled in only a fraction of that number the night before.

The size of the crowd and its enthusiasm appeared to contradict polls that show his once-comfortable lead slipping away in a state that Republicans have never won the White House without winning.

After his running mate Mike Pence introduced him with brief remarks, Mr Trump thanked Cleveland for the warm welcome and for hosting the Republican National Convention at which he was named the party's nominee in July.

"Ohio is a special place and Cleveland is a special place," he said.

People roared and waved their Trump-Pence signs. Then, he gave them what they came to hear.

"Just take a look at her record; she's been there for 30 years and hasn't fixed anything," he said of Mrs Clinton's political career.

"She's unleashed death, destruction and failure in every country she's touched in the Middle East.

"Hillary's catastrophic failures unleashed ISIS, right?" he asked, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group.

"Yes!" the crowd shouted.

Blaming Mrs Clinton and US President Barack Obama for creating "a great vacuum" in the Middle East that gave birth to ISIS, he said the group "is now on a campaign of genocide against Christians all over the world". Pointedly ignoring the many Muslims the group has murdered, the crowd shouted "yes!" in unison, and as if on cue.

Indeed, all four supporters The Straits Times spoke to had been to at least four Trump rallies before. That confirmed observations by pundits that he is continuing to play to his base of largely white males.

Nevertheless, he touched all the bases he had rounded before. In addition to saying that Mrs Clinton's policies as secretary of state had fuelled "radical Islamic terrorism", he blamed her for virtually every problem facing the United States: crime, loss of jobs to other countries and slow economic recovery.

Yet he was not averse to taking a page out of the message book that helped Mr Obama win two elections. "We are about change, and she is about keeping things the same," he said, virtually echoing Mr Obama's mantra.

Mr Trump also repeated his accusations that the media was biased against him and "colluded with Hillary to rig the election". Ironically he earlier said he had no doubt he would win the presidency with a poll-defying result that would be "Brexit times five".

If there was any surprise, it was that he did not drop any surprises, largely covering old ground and sounding unconvincing, and tired.

In fact, the rally was his third in one day, during which he covered nearly 1,400km across three states.

In contrast, Mrs Clinton's Cleveland appearance was her first on the campaign trail in nine days. Polling data from RealClearPolitics shows her leading Mr Trump an average of 45.3 per cent to 39.4 per cent with about two weeks to election day.

As Mr Trump's speech neared the 45-minute mark, the Cleveland crowd became less responsive. An undercurrent of unease often bubbles through Trump rallies, most often when he hits out at racial and religious minorities.

In fact, as he spoke of illegal Mexican immigrants committing crimes in the US, one young man shouted what sounded like "stab them in the back" and "shoot them in the head".

People nearby smiled sheepishly. But not long after that, a growing number started heading for the exits even as he was still speaking.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Rally turnouts belie opinion polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe