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Thousands gather in Ocala for a Donald Trump campaign rally

From the Election 2020 series
  • Updated
  • 4 min to read
A picture of President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump is seen pointing his finger at the crowd during his campaign rally at the Ocala International Airport on Oct. 16, 2020. 

Ocala, Fla. -- As Air Force One landed on the runway, “Macho Man” by Village People blasted through the speakers. President Donald Trump arrived.

Masks were rare in the crowd of thousands who Trump spoke to at Ocala International Airport on Friday afternoon. The president’s campaign has focused heavily on Florida in the last month. 

Trump jumped from topic to topic throughout his hour and a half-long speech, touching on fake news, his polling in Florida, “corrupt” Joe Biden, China, energy independence and his stances on abortion and the Second Amendment. 

“If [Biden] wins, the radical left will be running this country,” Trump said. “They’re addicted to power, and God help us if they ever get it.”

Florida has nearly 750,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Oct. 17. Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted COVID restrictions on bars and restaurants on Sept. 25. The rally itself had no mask mandate and no social distancing.

On Oct. 2, the president tested positive for COVID-19. Trump has since tested negative multiple times, according to his doctor. He was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5.

Trump spoke at a rally in Sanford on Monday, and Vice President Mike Pence hosted an event in The Villages two days earlier. Trump also participated in a town hall event on NBC on Thursday night in Miami, where he fielded questions from potential voters.

Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, was scheduled to speak at a gun store in Gainesville on Oct. 5 until the president tested positive for COVID-19.

A picture of a sign and President Donald Trump

A “Fake News CNN” sign is seen at President Donald Trump’s campaign rally held at the Ocala International Airport in Florida on Oct. 16, 2020. 

The crowd huddled together on bleachers and seats set up close together surrounding the stage. As Trump’s staff tested the microphones on stage, the crowd booed and jeered at the press, chanting “four more years” and “CNN sucks.” 

“It’s the enemy of the people, our media is the enemy of the people,” Trump said. “It’s very, very dangerous what they do.”

During the speech, the crowd cheered when the president mentioned confirming Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

“What a breath of fresh air, right? She’s fantastic,” Trump said. “You know, you’re not allowed to discriminate, I do like smart people on the supreme court.”  

Pat McBride, a 61-year-old printing and embroidery business owner and UF alumnus, stood outside of the airport selling masks, t-shirts, cups and more emblazoned with “MAGA.” Thousands of people streamed by his tent as they entered the venue. By the end of the event, he had almost sold out of some items in his inventory.

“It’s just so awesome to feel the energy watching everybody walk by, and this county is a big supporter of him,” McBride said. “And it's gonna be a close election.”

A picture of a boy holding a "Trump" flag

A boy is seen holding a small “Trump” flag during President Donald Trump’s campaign rally at the Ocala International Airport in Florida on Oct. 16, 2020. 

Trump trails Biden by about four points in Florida, according to polling averages from FiveThirtyEight. Biden leads the president by about 11 points on average nationally.

Waiting in line to get into the event, Dennis Kulonda, a 77-year-old from Leesburg, a town just outside of The Villages. Kulonda did not have a mask on and said he wasn’t worried about COVID-19. He said he loved the atmosphere and number of people he saw at the rally. 

“It's a testimonial to the not only popularity but the capability of Mr. Trump,” he said. 

Before the president took the stage, Republican congressional nominee Kat Cammack, who is running to replace Ted Yoho in Florida's 3rd Congressional district, spoke. Gov. Ron DeSantis also spoke before the president took the stage.

Governor Ron DeSantis talked about the Supreme Court nominee of Amy Coney Barrett and the potential responses to it from Democrats.

“Answer the question, Joe,” DeSantis said, referring to what he characterized as Biden’s reluctance to answer if he will add justices to the Supreme Court.

Outside of the venue, only a small group of about five protesters gathered briefly, holding Biden signs.

Inside the venue, tents offered snacks, water and cooling fan stations. Misting fans spritzed cold water onto sweaty attendees. People huddled close together inside the tents and throughout the rest of the venue, ignoring social distancing guidelines. The City of Ocala passed a mandate in August requiring facial coverings in indoor spaces. Because the rally was outside, that mandate did not apply.

David Hammar, a 61-year-old attendee, stood in the cold water vapor after four hours of waiting for the event to begin in the sunny, 84-degree weather. He wasn’t wearing a mask, but said he was not worried about COVID-19 because the event was outside and it was breezy.

Stuart Sawyer, a teacher from Ocala, wore a Superman-esque suit with a “T” on the chest, a fake tan and a blonde wig. He called himself “MAGA Man” or “Super Trump” and said the president was just like a superhero.

“He's fighting for all of America,” Sawyer said. “In fact, I think he is one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever had.”

Trump noticed Sawyer in the crowd and pointed him out. The president called Sawyer’s costume great and thanked him for coming.

People swarmed him afterward, eager to get a picture of the man lauded by the president.

“My heart is so full right now,” Sawyer said to his fans after the event. 

Turning Point USA at UF, a conservative student organization, sent a group of students to the event. Carter Mermer, a 21-year-old UF business administration senior and the organization’s president, said he couldn’t even tell the president just had COVID-19.

“I was just impressed with how he just had coronavirus and he was sick,” Mermer said. “You wouldn't be able to tell that he just got out of the hospital.”

Standing in the middle of the crowd, maskless, 51-year-old Ocala resident Frank Thomas observed the rally. As a Black man, Thomas said he supports Trump because he’s a “true American.” He said he often hears the stereotype that Republicans are racist, but he doesn’t agree.

“I've been here around thousands and thousands of white people and I don't see any racists,” Thomas said.

A picture of two people with a President Donald Trump balloon

Two women are seen cheering, one with a Trump balloon during President Donald Trump’s campaing rally held at the Ocala International Airport in Florida on Oct. 16, 2020. 

Three generations of Victoria Hickman’s family came out to support Trump. She was there with her 15-year-old daughter, Ryleigh, and her mother, Terry Martin. Being together at the event was a dream come true.

Ryleigh said it was “pretty awesome” to come together as a family and show support for the same things. She said she saw a decent amount of people from her school, Forest High School in Ocala, and appreciated their similar views. 

Terry Martin said she loves Trump and wanted to be there to support him. 

“I want him to know that he has all of us on his side,” Martin said. “We've got his back.”

Correction: This article was updated to reflect that Ryleigh Hickman attends Forest High School in Ocala. A previous version reported otherwise.

Contact Anna and Steven at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow them on Twitter @Anna_Wilderr and @swalker_7.

Staff Writer

Anna is a rising sophomore majoring in journalism on a pre-law track. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors and at the beach, doing yoga or cooking. She hopes to pursue a career in investigative journalism or become a civil rights lawyer.

Staff Writer

Steven Walker is the 2020 national election reporter for The Alligator. He is a junior journalism major at UF, and in his first semester with The Alligator.