What We Don’t Know About 2020

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I had a lovely week off enjoying all the last moments of summer — a perfect beach day, park picnics and bracing myself — er, preparing for perhaps the strangest school year ever.

Sadly, summer can’t last forever. And in my little corner of the world, when the leaves turn, temperatures drop and pumpkin spice everything starts appearing on grocery store shelves, it only means one thing: Election season is upon us.

We are now less than eight weeks out from Election Day. How do you know we are getting close to final decision time? Even Joe Biden is out on the campaign trail.

The Democratic nominee, after months of avoiding air travel, pushed his job plan before a small, socially distanced crowd at a union hall in Michigan today. President Trump, meanwhile, held rallies in North Carolina and Florida on Tuesday — outdoor gatherings with maskless crowds.

In Washington, Congress is back from its August recess but is still making very little progress on passing an economic relief package to help Americans facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Despite all this political action — or inaction, in the case of Congress — the outcome of the election will inevitably be heavily influenced by factors beyond the control of either political party. In the final weeks, the unexpected can transform a race. Just ask James Comey.

Here’s some of the uncertainty I’ll be watching over the next few weeks:

The president and some of his aides believe having a vaccine or showing progress toward one could be crucial to his re-election. This week, Mr. Trump predicted that a vaccine could come “during the month of October.”

That seems optimistic. Today, the director of the National Institutes of Health undercut Mr. Trump’s timeline in congressional hearings. Hours earlier, a leading vaccine developer, AstraZeneca, announced that it had suspended a large-scale clinical trial of a vaccine candidate after a patient experienced what might have been a severe adverse reaction.

Regardless of the timing, Democrats are already raising concerns over any vaccine promoted by Mr. Trump. This weekend, Senator Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic nominee for vice president, said she would not trust the president’s assurances that a coronavirus vaccine was safe.

Certainly, the release of a vaccine would be an October surprise for the history books. But any significant progress could affect voters’ decisions.

Even if a vaccine does come out this fall, there’s little guarantee as to how it will be received. In a recent CBS News poll, just 21 percent of voters said they would get a vaccine as soon as possible if one became available, down from 32 percent in late July.

Months of protests seem to be turning more violent, as right-wing militants clash with racial justice activists. In Kenosha, Wis., a 17-year-old armed with a military-style weapon was charged with homicide in connection with shootings that left two people dead and one injured. In Portland, Ore., a man affiliated with a right-wing group was shot and killed as a large caravan of supporters of Mr. Trump drove through downtown.

And over the weekend in Louisville, Ky., armed supporters of the police clashed with anti-racism protesters before the Kentucky Derby. Armed with long guns, members of a Black militia group, NFAC, taunted the officers guarding the track.

More than six months into a deadly pandemic and after a series of videotaped police killings and shootings of Black people, emotions are running high in America.

Mr. Trump sees an opportunity to run on a “law and order” message, even as the chaos is happening on his watch as commander-in-chief. So far, his strategy doesn’t seem to be working. Polls show Mr. Trump still trailing Mr. Biden in surveys nationally and in battleground states.

But how these protests continue to develop over the fall may affect the larger dynamics of the race.

Mr. Trump seems determined to sow all kinds of distrust about mail voting, claiming without evidence that the practice will lead to “the greatest rigged election in history.”

Despite what many Republicans argue, there’s no evidence that voting by mail leads to election fraud. But what we do know is that the country has never voted by mail in the numbers expected this fall.

Efforts by states to expand access to mail-in voting as a safer alternative to in-person voting have enlarged the pool of eligible mail voters by 62 million people. Only about four in 10 voters are expected to cast their ballots in person.

The nightmare scenario is a replay in November of the postal delays, mistakes and spotty ballot rule enforcement that led to disruptions and ballot rejections in recent elections. According to The Washington Post, more than 534,000 mail ballots were rejected during primaries across 23 states this year because of late arrivals or voter errors.

A heated presidential contest crashing into a largely untested expansion of mail-in ballots could lead to legal fights, the disenfranchisement of voters and the possibility that final results will be delayed by days — if not weeks.

We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

At more than 400 pages, “Rage” is Bob Woodward’s second book on the Trump presidency, after the publication of “Fear” in 2018. And while it will not be on sale until next week, advance copies are already out in the world, and several publications, including The Times, published stories on Wednesday providing some CliffsNotes.

Here are five takeaways from the book, via my colleague Maggie Haberman and reports from The Washington Post and CNN:

  • In a discussion with Mr. Woodward, Mr. Trump called the U.S. military “suckers” for paying the extensive costs to protect South Korea. “We’re defending you, we’re allowing you to exist,” Mr. Trump said of South Korea.

  • Mr. Woodward at one point noted that both he and Mr. Trump were “white” and “privileged” and asked Mr. Trump if he could see that they both had to “work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain, particularly, Black people feel in this country.” Mr. Trump replied, “No,” he could not, and added later, “I don’t feel that at all.”

  • The former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, is quoted in the book calling Mr. Trump “dangerous” and “unfit.” He said he had discussed with the former director of the office of national intelligence, Dan Coats, whether there should be “collective action” to speak out publicly against Mr. Trump.

  • And Mr. Woodward includes an anecdote in the book about Mr. Trump being heard in a 2017 meeting disparaging his generals and saying they “care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.”

— Matt Stevens, politics reporter

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