For most of the time I’ve worked in politics, the political environment was pretty much baked-in by Labor Day. In the final two months of a campaign, candidates could fight around the edges, running against the tide, with a tide or battling out a more neutral political atmosphere. In 2014, that rule changed. Democrats seemed to be doing okay for a mid-term election in the midst of a Democratic president’s second term in office. They certainly weren’t facing headwinds like Republicans under Bush in 2006.  

Here in North Carolina, Senator Kay Hagan controlled the narrative, fighting off a challenge from then-House Speaker Thom Tillis. She held a small but steady lead throughout the summer and into September. Then, ISIS started releasing videos of beheadings of American and western journalists. An Eboloa outbreak in Africa suddenly seemed to be out of control as people in the U.S. contracted the disease.

The two incidences set off a panic and criticism of the Obama administration. Republicans called for banning flights from Africa, as if it were a single country, not a the largest continent in the world. People questioned Obama’s Middle East strategy that had apparently left a vacuum that was filled with a new and even more deadly breed of Islamic terrorists. Closing our borders became a bigger deal than our health care. Within just a few weeks, the political environment shifted from slightly favoring Republicans to what looked like a wave similar to the 2010 election that had wiped out Democrats nationally.

In 2016, a similar phenomenon occurred. Hillary Clinton seemed to be heading to victory despite a flawed campaign and relatively high negatives. She clearly won the debates and Trump looked uninformed and a bit comical. Then, James Comey dropped his letter to Congress re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s emails and abruptly changed the trajectory of the race.

As Nate Silver of 538 wrote a few months later, “At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.” In other words, events during the final week of the campaign can change the election result.

Not that long ago, the quick shift in attention and emphasis would not have been possible. Information reached people in newspapers that were delivered once or twice a day. The evening news just ran once. Today, the 24 hour news cycle allows pundits to obsess over events round the clock and social media keeps the minutia of politics constantly in front of people throughout the day. Everything is now BREAKING NEWS.

So as we head into the final 90 days of the election, the political environment heavily favors Democrats. Coronavirus and race relations still dominate the news cycles. Additional outbreaks threaten to shut down the economy in states across the nation. However, voters still trust Trump on the economy more than Biden and if the loss of jobs and the rising cost of food becomes more scary than the disease, then the environment could shift quickly again. A lead in early September could evaporate in late October and we are in notoriously unstable times. Nobody should be complacent.

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