Dates — and developments — to watch as we enter the home stretch

Dates — and developments — to watch as we enter the home stretch
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Finally, the home stretch to the Nov. 3 election. Predictable patterns usually are the norm. With this president, there is no norm.

With that critical caveat, here are four dates, over the next 65 days, to mark on your political calendar.

Sept. 13: Start paying attention to polls taken right after Labor Day. By then most of the convention propaganda has been absorbed.


Often, they are telling. For all the stories about 1988 when Michael Dukakis held a big lead over the summer, that more than evaporated by mid-September. Then Vice President George H.W. Bush was up by about five points, an advantage he held through his 53 percent to 46 percent victory.

Likewise, in mid-September four years ago, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump jokingly blames 'Crooked Hillary' after his rally mic stops working The Hill's Campaign Report: Two weeks to the election l Biden leads in new polls as debate looms l Trump pressures DOJ on Hunter Biden Trump remarks put pressure on Barr MORE was only running two or three points ahead in surveys. That bounced up temporarily after some Trump scandals, but that's where it settled: She won the popular vote by 2.1 points, while losing the electoral college.

Pay particular attention to two numbers: Trump's job approval rating and the number of Americans who think the country is off on the wrong track. Trump need his job approval, currently mired in the lows 40s, to get above 45 percent. Currently the “wrong track” number is about 70 percent. If that doesn’t get down ten points or so, it's hard for an incumbent president to win.

In the horse race the over/under on whether Biden remains in solid shape is five points.

Sept. 29: The first scheduled presidential debate. Most pundits and political operatives believe the debates are do or die; many of us are wanna-be sports reporters, and the contest and combat are irresistible.


In reality, the debates are overhyped, rarely determinative. Of the last ten, the one exception was 1980 and Ronald Reagan. Four years later, in one debate, the Gipper was lost, figuratively wandering down the Pacific Coast Highway: A little over two weeks later he won in a landslide.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton dominated the debates against Trump — to little avail.

The charismatically-challenged Biden does OK in presidential or general election debates. Trump will hurl wild charges and make crazy claims. The test for Biden will be to keep his focus, not fall into that trap.

He was smart to reject Speaker Pelosi's suggestion to skip any debates with Trump, and should ignore Hillary Clinton's helpful counsel not to concede even if behind. That's a charge Democrats are bringing against Trump.

Oct. 2: This is the last unemployment report before the election, as the October jobs data come out Nov. 6, which is probably a bad break for the president, as the unemployment probably will be a bit better in October.

Moreover, the rate doesn't reflect what Jason FurmanJason FurmanOn The Money: Five things to know about the August jobs report Dates — and developments — to watch as we enter the home stretch In surprise, unemployment rate falls, economy adds jobs MORE, who chaired President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, calls "the realistic unemployment rate," which includes those without a job who've quit looking and part-time workers who'd like full time employment. Furman calculates if the official September rate is about 10 percent, the real number will be closer to 13 percent.

Trump will tout the stock market, which generally continues to do well. But in the Pandemic, the market rise has been carried by a few rich high-tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Tesla. That doesn’t play in Ohio's Mahoning Valley.

The other economic indicator to watch is consumer confidence, both the University of Michigan and the Conference Board. Not surprisingly, in the COVID-19 crisis, confidence is relatively weak; whether the virus is seen as getting better or not will impact consumer confidence in October.

The bottom line: The economy and the pandemic likely will be a drag for Trump; the question is whether he can minimize that by diverting attention to the culture wars and racial fears.

Oct. 20: Two weeks before election day is the time for the so-called “October surprise.” This usually is a ruse, but with the president's politically loyal Attorney General, Democrats genuinely believe there’s a danger this time. William BarrBill BarrThe Hill's Campaign Report: Two weeks to the election l Biden leads in new polls as debate looms l Trump pressures DOJ on Hunter Biden Trump remarks put pressure on Barr Meadows says Trump did not order declassification of Russia documents MORE already has warned that voting by mail, which likely will be used by more than half of voters, is subject to widespread fraud — though there is no evidence of that. But if Barr hurls charges of fraud on election eve, it'll create chaos and set the predicate for Trump to contest the election.

Barr also has enlisted U.S. Attorneys to investigate Democrats and the 2016 presidential election, ironically relating to Russia clandestinely aiding Donald Trump. One, John DurhamJohn DurhamTrump remarks put pressure on Barr Trump demands Barr investigate Hunter Biden Juan Williams: Trump's search for dirt falls flat MORE, has a good reputation, but his apparent closeness to Barr has raised suspicions.

For Democrats, it's more than suspicion on another U.S. Attorney, John Bash, who is investigating whether the Obama-Biden administration unfairly targeted Donald Trump in late 2016 and early 2017 because Bash previously worked as a special assistant and associate counsel to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE.

Mark your calendars — and pray for no extra innings!

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.