cross-country travel that leaves little time for sleep. Big rallies of sweaty crowds interspersed with tony, high-dollar fundraisers at celebrity homes. Obsessive poll-tracking, September scares and October surprises.
That's the typical post-Labor Day path for presidential candidates as they embark on what is traditionally the final, frenetic sprint to Election Day, all with the presumption that one of the contenders would declare victory under a cascade of balloons, while the other affects a gracious demeanor in conceding. The loser heads home to contemplate a post-campaign career, and the winner moves to Cabinet-making or preparation of a second-term agenda.
Not this year. A confluence of factors, including the coronavirus, an escalation of early balloting and an unusually firmly decided electorate have made this presidential election like no other in modern history.
When it comes to news and events, the campaign is full of drama: the pandemic, civil unrest over racial injustice, and what would normally be explosive revelations that President Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the danger of COVID-19, insulted military generals and reportedly called those who died serving in the military "losers" and "suckers."
But the campaign competition itself is remarkably static. Polling has remained fairly stable, with Trump trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden by 7-10 percentage points nationally and by single digits in battleground states. Trump's own approval rating has also remained about the same – in the low to mid-40s – despite a flailing economy, escalating virus deaths and what would normally be damaging news reports.
"This is the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' campaign, where nothing really matters" in determining the outcome, says elections and voting expert Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, referring to the lyrics of a song by the band Queen. Most voters have made up their minds, McDonald says – a statement backed up by many polls – and so a new Trump insult or scandal, or a Biden gaffe, just adds to the noise without changing votes.
After author Bob Woodward released book excerpts and audiotape featuring Trump admitting he purposely played down the severity of the virus, Democrats were out the next day with TV ads calling Trump a liar and unfit for office. His claim that he was trying to avoid a panic just fueled the fight, with Democrats noting Trump's daily tweets warning of violent protesters and accusing Biden of wanting to "abolish the suburbs."
That might help Biden a bit, McDonald says, by reinforcing his floor of support. But it's not likely to shake Trump's loyal base, experts say.
"The Woodward book is a partisan inkblot," says Kevin Madden, senior adviser to GOP nominee Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. "Reactions to it are largely guided by whether a voter already supports or opposes Trump. There will be bigger forces at play with persuadable voters than the contents of Woodward's book."
A Monmouth University poll released Thursday buttresses Madden's point: It shows Biden with a 9-point lead over Trump nationally among registered voters, unchanged from a month ago. And while the survey – taken after a report that Trump insulted American war dead – showed that voters think Biden has more respect for the troops than Trump, the report did not impact the overall race for president.
"People's views are just so hardened in. Either (Trump) is unqualified to be president, or he's qualified and people are just out to get him and it's more of the same," says J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania. "People who are Trump supporters are not going to believe anything Woodward writes. They probably still blame him for bringing down Nixon," he adds, referring to Woodward's role in exposing the Watergate scandal.
From a political science perspective, the situation can be explained by things such as historic voter polarization and "media filter bubbles," in which people hear different information from self-selected news sources, says North Carolina State University professor Steven Greene. This year, "we have to resign ourselves to the fact that this is just nuts," he says.
Dramatically different, too, is the basic machinery of running a campaign this year. Trump, who is most at home in a big crowd of supporters, had to cancel two Nevada airport hangar rallies this weekend because the events, which worked so well for him in 2016, violate the state's rules on large gatherings during the pandemic. The campaign is planning events in the battleground state this weekend anyway, with details to be announced.
Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have begun air travel campaigning – but carefully, eschewing big rallies for small gatherings of pre-selected, masked attendees. At this stage of a typical campaign, candidates and their spouses might hit several states in a day.
Harris was in Florida on Thursday, while Biden is set to go to Florida on Tuesday while his wife, Jill Biden, heads to Michigan. The former vice president goes to Minnesota next Friday. Other announced events are all virtual ones.
Biden and Trump are set to face off in three debates, events that have had substantial impacts on previous presidential races. Those may also be relatively meaningless this year, experts say – not only because the two camps are so entrenched but because tens of millions of people will likely have voted before the debates are completed. Millions may have voted even before the first debate, Sept. 29.
North Carolinians started getting absentee ballots this week, meaning they could vote well before the debates and the typical onslaught of ads that comes in the last two months of the campaign. Minnesota voters can start casting ballots next week, and more states will follow in early October.
According to the U.S. Elections Project, which McDonald runs, voters have so far requested 56,957,162 ballots in states that report such numbers. As of 3 p.m. Thursday, 4,395 ballots were already sent in to authorities in North Carolina, Illinois and South Carolina – most of them military and civilian overseas ballots, McDonald says.
While many states have allowed early or absentee voting in the past, they have expanded the opportunity this year because of the pandemic. For example, some states that once required a reason to vote absentee have waived that requirement – or are listing fear of contracting the virus as a legitimate reason.
Other states are automatically sending vote-by-mail ballot applications or ballots directly to those who have voted in the past.
In Pennsylvania, where some rules for voters are still being litigated, voters may be motivated to mail in ballots especially early, fearful that delays by the U.S. Postal Service might keep their ballots from being received in time, Leckrone says. That means if there is some kind of October surprise, "voters wouldn't be able to take that into account," he says. A minor issue, experts say, in a year when almost everyone has made their decision about the presidency.