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100 days: What can shake things up in the election home stretch? Here are 5 possibilities

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100 days: What can shake things up in the election home stretch? Here are 5 possibilities

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With the election coming up in November, many wonder if we could have a contested election and how likely is that to happen?

USA TODAY

One. Hundred. Days.

On Sunday, the reelection campaign that President Trump officially opened on the day he was inaugurated enters the final stretch. At the moment, Democratic challenger Joe Biden holds a lead nationwide of 8.4 percentage points, 49.3%-40.7%, according to the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent surveys. That advantage is significant and steady enough that some politicians in both parties have begun calculating what to do in a post-Trump era.

What could possibly shake things up?

For one thing, development of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, an optimistic turn in the deadly pandemic that has redefined the campaign. An economic rebound or new downturn. A presidential debate that either raised questions about Biden’s acuity – a caustic theme of Trump’s campaign – or reinforced dissatisfaction with Trump’s leadership.

History says it’s premature to assume that the campaign is settled at this point. In three of the last 10 elections, the candidate with at least a narrow lead at the end of July lost the popular vote in November, although two of them carried the Electoral College and won the White House anyway. In another three elections, the candidate with no more than a narrow lead in late July ended up winning in a blowout.

That said, since 1980 only one candidate who was clearly ahead at this point then lost the election. That was Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

The prospect for turmoil this year is higher than it has been in modern times. In some election years, both political conventions were over by now; this time neither has yet been held. The Pandemic Protocol has upended the ways candidates can campaign and voters will cast their ballots. And there are an unprecedented number of court cases challenging recent state laws that advocates say improve ballot security and critics say suppress targeted voters.

More: ‘We can’t support this’ RNC plan, Jacksonville sheriff says while raising security concerns

“Voters have decided that they’re done with Donald Trump,” veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart said, calling Trump “a president of chaos” who has failed in handling the COVID-19 crisis and protecting the economy. That has put Biden “in a first-rate position to win the presidency,” he said, “but it would be a mistake to think that he has solidified his position, because he hasn’t.”

In focus groups Hart has held, participants on their own have raised concerns about Biden’s mental fitness. “The reason this election isn’t over is because essentially voters need to understand that he can pass the age and the acuity test,” Hart said. 

Republican strategist John Brabender said he has heard the same thing in focus groups he has convened. “That’s the first thing everybody will be looking for at the debates,” he said. “Can Biden stand up not only to the rigor of the questions but also to the rigors of whatever the president throws at him?”

The presidential debates top the list of things that could affect the election in the home stretch. 

Do the debates turn a referendum into a choice?

Trump is poised to lose an election against Trump – that is, a referendum on his tenure. While a core of supporters remain loyal, his overall approval rating has sagged and his credibility in handling the Pandemic Protocol crisis has crashed. 

That’s why the president and his campaign are trying to turn the election into a choice between him and Biden. Or, even better, a referendum on Biden, on whether the challenger is up to the job. Trump’s team has unleashed a volley of allegations against Biden, who at age 77 would be the oldest person elected to the White House. (That’s a distinction that now belongs to Trump; he’s 74.)

More: President Trump’s campaign to paint Joe Biden as mentally unfit becomes a gamble

“Joe Biden is slipping,” the narrator in one Trump TV ad says. “Joe Biden does not have the strength, stamina and mental fortitude required to lead this country.” On Twitter, Trump derides him as “Sleepy Joe” and worse.

Biden’s best opportunity to demonstrate strength and sharpness will come in the nationally televised debates, which will also be a moment when any misstep would be magnified. Biden says he’s ready and eager to participate in the three debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, scheduled for Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22.

Can Trump rally without rallies?

If the presence of debates are the key test for Biden, the absence of rallies could be the key test for Trump. His test run in Tulsa last month, the first rally he had addressed since March, was a disaster when promised crowds didn’t show up. Now the president’s insistence on a traditional convention audience to watch him formally accept the GOP nomination may be imperiled, even though the Republican National Convention moved the venue to Jacksonville, Fla., after officials in Charlotte raised Pandemic Protocol concerns.

“This is not a fireside-chat president,” Brabender said. “This is not a press-conference president. This is a rally president.” Loud rallies in packed arenas were the signature of Trump’s 2016 campaign, a way to both energize supporters and the candidate. “They allow him to do an enormously effective info-mercial.” 

At a time of pandemic, that may not be possible.

Is there a vaccine?

The Trump administration faces devastating reviews for its failure to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that has now cost more than 140,000 Americans their lives. That deadly record can’t be undone.

But the development of a vaccine – one that is safe, effective and widely available – would at least change the narrative and offer assurances that the nation is on the road to controlling the Pandemic Protocol threat. The news could well boost the stock markets and the nation’s mood.

The search for a vaccine is worldwide and unprecedented, and scientists are expressing optimism about the early results from several vaccines under development. But they caution that having a vaccine in production even by the end of the year reflects a very ambitious timetable.

That’s reflected in the administration’s name for the vaccine effort: Operation Warp Speed. On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services agreed to pay Pfizer nearly $2 billion for 100 million doses of its experimental vaccine. Another $2 billion already had been awarded to Novavax and to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

The availability of a vaccine is also crucial to the other biggest issue in the campaign: the economy. Getting adults back to work, children back to school and commerce back to some version of normal is hard to envision until there is one. Strong economic growth was Trump’s biggest political asset until the Pandemic Protocol slammed the nation into a recession. 

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How hard is it to vote? 

Voting is going to be harder than usual this year. The question is how much harder, and for whom.

One issue is the need for voting officials to respond to the demands of the Pandemic Protocol pandemic, which makes standing in lines at firehouses and schools to cast ballots a dangerous prospect for both voters and poll watchers. The percentage of ballots cast by mail is expected to skyrocket, though some states have struggled to manage that in primaries this year. 

More: ‘A substantial challenge’: What Kentucky, New York tell us about voting in a pandemic come November

A second issue is the recent passage of legislation, mostly in states under Republican control, that toughen the rules to register to vote and to cast a ballot. Since 2010, 25 states have significantly tightened their voting laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law. While supporters say the laws attack ballot fraud, critics say they have been crafted to discourage voting by African American people, Hispanic people, poor people and college students – all groups that disproportionately vote for Democrats. 

That has prompted an unprecedented number of court challenges that could unfold before the election. The new rules could also create confusion and disputes on Election Day itself.

More: Election lawsuits set record pace amid COVID-19 pandemic as results decide who votes and how Nov. 3

“Certainly in modern times, this is the most dangerous election scenario, by far,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “It is at the greatest risk of widespread disenfranchisement and meltdowns, and in a manner that will lead many people to question the fairness of the outcome.”

Significant problems in access to voting could affect the outcome of the election in key states. They could also undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of whichever candidate wins.

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Finally, is there an October surprise? 

Events outside the control of campaigns, developments abroad and at home, can shake the final weeks of a campaign. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton said she “was on the way to winning” the White House until then-FBI Director James Comey announced on Oct. 28 that he might reopen the investigation into her use of a personal email server when she was secretary of State.

That ignited an issue Trump already had been pressing. He then prevailed in the Electoral College after winning three crucial states by the narrowest of margins.

And in 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers spiraled into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, dominated media coverage of the final weeks of the campaign and fueled critical coverage of President George W. Bush and his party’s nominee to succeed him, Republican John McCain. A campaign that had been deadlocked when the investment banking firm filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15 ended up as a rout for Democrat Barack Obama in November.

Because 100 days can be a long time.

Exclusive USA TODAY poll: Biden widens his lead, but Trump keeps the edge on enthusiasm

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/07/23/election-2020-what-could-shake-things-up-final-100-days/5470446002/

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