The Sunshine State was treated to twin apocalyptic visions on Tuesday, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both warned Florida voters in dark terms that the other candidate threatens the fabric of the nation.
As the tone of the presidential campaign has become increasingly contentious, both candidates have raised the stakes, claiming that democracy itself may be in danger. Clinton's and Trump’s dire pitches, unrecognizable next to the happy-warrior optimism of recent presidential elections, arrived on a muggy Florida afternoon two weeks before the election.
“The criminal conduct of Hillary Clinton threatens the foundations of democracy. I mean that,” Trump said Tuesday at an airport rally in Sanford, Fla., wearing a camouflage Make America Great Again hat. Trump said that Clinton’s handling of a private email server was a crime that made her ineligible to be President. (The FBI found that Clinton’s actions did not warrant criminal prosecution, and even if she had been convicted of a crime, she could still run for President under the Constitution.)
“This is our last chance,” Trump continued. “This is bigger than me or any of us. It’s about our country. This is about restoring our Constitution.”
Two hundred miles away, Clinton told a crowd in Coconut Creek that Trump could destroy American democratic traditions, pointing to his controversial argument that the election is rigged.
“Donald Trump is attacking everything that has set our country apart for 240 years,” Clinton said. “After spending his entire campaign attacking one group of Americans after another — immigrants, African Americans, women, POWs, Muslims, people with disabilities — now his final target is democracy itself.”
Clinton said Trump’s refusal during the presidential debate to say whether he would accept the results of the Nov. 8 election broke with hundreds of years of precedence.
“This all started with George Washington refusing to become a king. Now Donald Trump probably would have called him a loser,” Clinton quipped.
“We have free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power,” she continued. “That is one thing that makes America great and makes America who we are.”
In a presidential campaign that is meaner and more divisive than any in recent memory, the Republican and Democratic nominees and their supporters are both painting the choice as an existential one. Crowds at Trump rallies often break into chants of “Lock her up!” about Clinton, and Trump surrogate and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said Tuesday that when he sees her, “I see her in an orange jumpsuit.”
Candidates have a long-standing habit of saying that their election is the most important, but rarely has the rhetoric so matched the claim. Barack Obama has exhorted audiences to go vote. “Everything we stand for is at stake,” the President said in September. “Democracy is on the ballot.”
Trump's and Clinton’s arguments that the opposing candidate would doom American democracy have, like many other attacks this election, a familiar “I know you are but what am I” quality. Both have notched up the rhetoric to match the other, a tendency most recognizable during the presidential debate. After Clinton said Trump was a puppet of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, he snapped, “You’re the puppet!”
But the argument that the country’s institutions are in danger has darker undertones that could have a lasting effect. At an Augustine, Fla., rally Monday, Trump warned of a dystopian, Orwellian future if the Clintons win back the White House. “When the people who control the political power in our society can rig investigations, can rig polls, you see these phony polls, and rig the media, they can wield absolute power over your life, your economy and your country, and benefit big time by it,” he said. It’s another notch in Trump’s campaign conspiracy theory, that the Clintons, the media and the Establishment are all working to undermine his candidacy.
Trump’s repeated assertions that the system is rigged have raised concerns among his supporters. A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 55% of Democrats have a great deal of confidence that their votes will be counted accurately, while just 44% of Republicans and 41% of Trump supporters feel the same way.
Still, as Trump and Clinton wrapped up their time in Florida, they each also injected some optimism into their speeches, at least about their own prospects. They both predicted wins for their supporters, and their campaigns claimed that early voting will favor their candidacy.
“ The lines at the voting booths are record, and I noticed that a lot of people on line, they’re wearing the red hat … They’re wearing buttons all over the place. I think those are people that are inclined to vote for us,” Trump said Tuesday, predicting that he will win Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. “It’s gonna be a little early to tell you what those numbers are, but it’s a big, big vote in the state of Florida.”
Clinton’s campaign said Tuesday morning that early voting in Florida was up 99% from 2012 among Latinos, a demographic that overwhelmingly supports Clinton. A Real Clear Politics poll average currently shows Clinton leading Trump by 3 points overall in Florida.
But that doesn’t mean Clinton is toning down her pitch. “I’m asking you to vote for me,” Clinton told the crowd in Coconut Creek. “More importantly, to vote for yourselves, because that is what’s at stake.”