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8 events that shaped the 2020 elections

Trump was in office for one day before the first mass protest began

ANALYSIS — We’re down to the final two days to vote in the 2020 election after a campaign season that often felt like one of the longest in living memory. Here are eight events that shaped this year’s races:

The inauguration of President Donald J. Trump

Yes, one of the most defining moments of 2020 happened nearly four years ago. In 2016, many Democrats took the race for granted and assumed there was no way Trump would ever get elected president of the United States. But the day after he set foot in the Oval Office, the National Mall was the scene of the massive Women’s March, and Democratic voters and donors began an urgent and sustained push to make sure Trump didn’t get a second term. 

Joe Biden wins the Democratic nomination for president

If Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, Trump and the Republicans would have more easily framed the election as a choice between socialism and capitalism. Biden’s nomination severely blunted that argument since people had already lived through eight years of him being a heartbeat away from the top job, and it kept the frame of the election on Trump’s behavior and record in office. Rep. James E. Clyburn’s endorsement and role in helping Biden win the South Carolina Democratic primary is a related pivotal moment, along with Sanders’ early exit and the quick consolidation around the former vice president.

“Anybody that wants a test can get a test”

The president’s words on March 6 came to symbolize his overall approach to the coronavirus. For months, Trump has demonstrated either a lack of understanding of the scope of the pandemic or an unwillingness to address COVID-19 in a serious and consistent way. That mentality had dramatic ramifications for the economy and thus the president’s reelection chances. Without a strong economy, voters were left to judge Trump on other issues less favorable to him. If the president had simply ramped up testing and encouraged everyone to wear a mask, there’s a good chance the economy, the country and Trump’s reelection chances would all be in a healthier position.

Steve Bullock runs for Senate

The Democratic governor’s decision in March to challenge GOP Sen. Steve Daines in Montana expanded the Senate battlefield by turning a race that was considered solidly in the Republican column into a competitive one that would require money and attention. With Montana in play, Democrats had more than one path to retaking the Senate. Now, with Trump struggling to match his 2016 performances in states around the country, Democrats have even more options. But Bullock’s entry was a legitimate game-changer. 

A walk in the park

In an otherwise stable race, the president lost some ground after his June decision to forcibly remove protesters from Lafayette Square across from the White House to pave the way for a photo op in front of St. John’s Church. Maybe more importantly, the moment was evidence that Trump’s emphasis on “law and order” wasn’t a clear-cut winning issue for him, even though it would be a constant part of his repertoire for the duration of the race. The president’s unwillingness to acknowledge the generational struggles of the Black community limited his ability to attract a larger share of voters of color, and his tactics looked tone-deaf to moderate voters.

The president tests positive for COVID-19

While it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, Trump testing positive and being hospitalized for the coronavirus was a breathtaking news event. Not only did it overshadow one of his legacy moments (the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court), it kept the attention on the coronavirus — an issue a majority of Americans trust Biden to handle better than the president. And without the second debate, Trump missed a prime-time opportunity to change the trajectory of the race. 

Washington Post op-ed by ‘national security’ Democrats

In September 2019, seven freshman Democrats declared in a Washington Post opinion piece that what Trump was reported to have said to the president of Ukraine was “a threat to all we have sworn to protect” and urged their colleagues to start an impeachment inquiry. Four of the seven represented districts Trump carried in 2016, so their declaration showed how much the president’s electoral strength had waned and that Democrats were unafraid to oppose him. More than a year later, Trump might not carry any of the seven districts.

The first presidential debate

Just by staying upright and coherent, Biden cleared a very low bar set by Republicans in the preceding months when they questioned his mental state. Down in the polls, Trump came to the Cleveland stage with the right strategy — trying to hold Biden accountable for the sins of the Obama administration and his son Hunter — but he executed it in the wrong way. In the words of conservative CNN commentator Scott Jennings, the president “went from being on offense to being offensive.” With his actions, Trump made himself the focal point. And as long as the election is a referendum on the unpopular and polarizing incumbent, the less likely Trump is to win.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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