Welcome to our weekly analysis of the state of the 2020 campaign.
The week in numbers
Catch me up
A presidential election that began in earnest nearly two years ago has finally arrived. Polling shows the campaign is ending as it began: as a referendum on President Trump. What’s new is that voters are also weighing his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats believe they have an edge, a larger path to 270 electoral votes through the Midwest, the Southwest, and even the Sun Belt. Mr. Trump’s campaign acknowledges an uphill climb, but believes a robust Election Day turnout can help squeak a victory similar to 2016.
Still, what happens on Tuesday might be the start of another chapter of this election — not mark its completion.
Keep up with Election 2020
For all the late-stage campaigning efforts from Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., both sides are preparing for a protracted legal battle that could include state litigation, long ballot counting efforts, and managing the expectations of their respective electoral bases. Mr. Trump has contributed to the tense mood by insinuating that a Supreme Court that now includes three of his handpicked judges may side with him on election-related matters.
Tuesday will sort fact from fiction, and warranted fears from fantasy. It will also answer the question that has dominated politics for four years: was Mr. Trump’s election in 2016 a perfect electoral storm, or a sign of a political Houdini poised to surprise again?
Trump’s closing message: Hunter Biden and the virus
Mr. Trump, who is not known to stick to prepared remarks, has not delivered a clear closing message to voters in the final weeks of the campaign. Instead, his rambling rally speeches are more like a party platter with a little something for everyone.
False coronavirus claims: His top line message to supporters is to ignore their eyes and ears and trust him that the worst of the pandemic is over, and that contracting a virus that has killed 230,000 Americans is not, in fact, a death sentence. “With the fake news, everything is Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid,” Mr. Trump complained at a rally in Omaha last week. “I had it. Here I am, right?” His riff on the media’s obsession with the coronavirus is also an admission that he has not been able to move past the pandemic, or steer the coverage, as he has been able to do in the past.
What he wants to talk about is Hunter Biden: The Trump campaign had always hoped to paint Mr. Biden and his family as corrupt, much in the way that they did four years ago with Hillary Clinton. But the story has not broken through, and Mr. Trump often complains that he can’t get the “mainstream media” to cover an unsubstantiated report by the New York Post, based on unverified information. He also refuses to concede that it’s not an effective closing message for him, as some Republicans believe. “I get a call from all the experts, right, guys that ran for president six, seven, eight times, never got past the first round, but they’re calling me up. ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be speaking about Hunter,’” he said at a rally in Tampa on Thursday. “‘You shouldn’t be saying bad things about Biden because nobody cares.’ I disagree. You know, maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not.”
Attacks on the election: Mr. Trump sprinkles his rally speeches with unfounded attacks on the election process. Last week, he claimed with no real evidence that “everyday, there’s cheating with the ballots.” It’s part of his consistent questioning of the integrity of the election. Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.
Biden’s closing message: All Trump, all virus
It is the belief of Mr. Biden’s campaign that what voters find distasteful about the president and his administration can all be wrapped up their handling of the coronavirus. In the final stretch, as Mr. Biden has increased his travel schedule to states like Iowa, Georgia, and Michigan, the message from Democrats has been united — all coronavirus, all the time.
Under the hood, the Biden campaign has several factors it’s looking at on Election Day, to judge whether the message has resonated or the campaign is in for a longer night.
Constituencies to watch: The first sign of Mrs. Clinton’s eventual defeat in 2016 was a Democratic electorate that was not engaged. For Mr. Biden, that is the first thing the campaign is seeking to reverse — and the one that’s most in their control. Battleground states like North Carolina and Florida will be the first big tests on Nov. 3, since they are expected to count ballots relatively fast. In those states, look for turnout among Black voters to be an initial measure of core Democratic turnout on Election Day.
Win early in these four states: Mr. Biden has multiple paths to victory, and both campaigns know it. While the dream scenario includes early wins in Florida and North Carolina, shutting off Mr. Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes early in the evening, he also has some secondary options. Georgia and Arizona are other battleground states that should be known on election night, and where Mr. Biden can make up electoral votes that went to Mr. Trump in 2016. And if all else fails, there’s the Midwest, which functions as Mr. Biden’s worst-case scenario. Michigan and Pennsylvania have said it will take several days to finish the count.
Party building: Tuesday is not only Mr. Biden’s day to be elected president, but it could usher in a wave of Democrats in power nationwide. In the last week, Mr. Biden has leaned into states like Iowa and Georgia, which are critical for Democrats seeking to gain control of the Senate. If Mr. Biden is elected with congressional majorities, it sets up a Democratic Party firmly within his grasp, even as it wrestles with strong ideological divides. It also gives them a chance to reverse yearslong deficits in state legislatures across the country in a critical redistricting year. It is all on the table for Democrats, and Mr. Biden. It will soon become clear if they seized the opportunity.
Nick Corasaniti and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.