50 days to go.
After a campaign that started more than a year ago, nearly every American already has formed an opinion of the presidential contenders, millions of dollars in TV ads have been aired, and early voting in some states has begun. But there's still plenty of time for some sort of development, deliberate or out-of-the-blue, that could alter the trajectory of an unpredictable contest — especially one that has tightened to the margin-of-error between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Consider the explosions over the weekend in New Jersey and New York, and the stabbing in Minnesota that may have been inspired by ISIS. In short order, both candidates spoke out. Trump demanding toughness; Clinton called for patience until more was known.
Aides in both camps have been braced for these or unexpected turns over the next seven weeks that could scramble a year of strategic planning.
"There's a sense that everything that happens has more weight than it probably should," says Katie Packer, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's presidential bid, recalling the final weeks of the 2012 campaign. "You're trying to focus on everything, and it's hard to distinguish the things that really deserve your full attention."
In the final stretch four years ago, she says Romney's team didn't initially realize just how much the candidate's comment in a debate— that he had gathered "binders full of women" to consider for jobs when he was Massachusetts governor — was going to resonate. And not in a good way.
The challenge in the campaign's closing weeks, says Democrats' interim chair Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000, is to avoid having the "panic-button, emergency-room world" of those responding to the crisis of the day from overwhelming the campaign's fundamental game plan.
Over the past several decades, September's standings haven’t reliably reflected November's returns. In 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain were tied 46%-46% in a Pew Research Center poll in mid-September; Obama would trounce McCain by seven percentage points when it counted. In 2000, Gore ledGeorge W. Bush by five points in September, an advantage that narrowed to half a percentage point of the popular vote on Election Day; Bush ultimately carried the Electoral College and won the White House.
At the moment, the most recent national polls averaged by RealClearPolitics show a race that is all but even, with Democrat Clinton at 45.7%, Republican Trump at 44.2%.
In politics, 50 days can be a very long time. Over the past 50 days, since July 31, Clinton has won a convention bounce in the polls and lost it, been diagnosed with pneumonia, and announced changes at the Clinton Foundation to address conflict-of-interest concerns. Trump has overhauled his top political staff, spoken for the first time to largely African American audiences, outlined some policy specifics, and acknowledged that Obama was born in the United States after years of disputing that fact.
The final weeks of past presidential campaigns have been shaken by verbal gaffes and devastating hurricanes, financial meltdowns and hostage crises. This time, the perils are more apparent for Clinton, although there are risks for Trump as well.
Over the next 50 days, what could possibly go wrong?
Let's count four of the possibilities.
1. DEBATE DEBACLE
The three fall debates are the biggest game-changing events on the schedule, the two candidates on stage face-to-face for 90 minutes. For many voters, they are an opportunity to tune in, compare their choices and decide which one they trust to lead the nation.
Moments from past debates have achieved iconic status in American politics.President Ford's misstatement on Poland, and his delay in correcting it afterwards, may have cost him the late-breaking momentum that would have won him re-election in 1976. Ronald Reagan's compelling closing statement in 1980 sealed his victory. In 2000, Gore's peculiar behavior — heavy sighing at one debate, and moving into Bush's personal space at another — may well have made the difference in an election that turned out to be this/close.
When Obama seemed disengaged at the first debate in 2012, it marked the high point of his opponent's campaign.
"I remember the day after the debate, him going to a huge rally in Virginia, and it just felt different, like the Republican Party became very excited about Mitt Romney at that point," Packer says. "They tasted the potential for victory." (Not for long: Obama recovered in the debates that followed and won re-election.)
This time, the stakes at the debates may well be higher than they have ever been before, given the closeness of the contest and the questions about Trump, who has never run for public office before. His demeanor and his depth of knowledge are likely to be tested in a way they weren't in the Republican primary debates, when a plenitude of candidates crowded the stage. Clinton has more political experience and stronger policy chops.
But that also may mean the two candidates face disparate definitions of victory, says Packer, a Republican who led an anti-Trump super PAC. "I do think expectations are going to be really high for Hillary and really low for Trump."
2. STOCK MARKET SWOON
The economy seems to be humming along, with an unemployment rate that has dipped below 5% and the report last week from the Census Bureau that median household incomes had scored a record increase in 2015. The sense that more Americans finally are feeling the benefits of the recovery from the Great Recession is one factor behind Obama's rising approval rating, a major asset for Clinton.
"The economy is in a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics and an adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 campaign, though Zandi has contributed money to Clinton's campaign this time. "But the one very likely thing that could happen — we'll see volatility in financial markets. ... We could see the equity stock market sell off 5%; that's possible."
The markets could get rattled if the Federal Reserve Board at its meetings this week unexpectedly decides to raise interest rates. Just the suggestion by a member of the Fed a few weeks ago that a rate hike wasn't off the table sent the Dow Jonestumbling nearly 400 points in a day. A disruption in global energy supplies that sent oil prices skyrocketing also could shake markets.
If good economic news underscores Clinton's case that things are on the right track, turmoil could reinforce Trump's argument that the country is headed in the wrong direction. About this time in 2008, the Republican president, George W. Bush, was struggling to deal with a financial crisis that created big problems for the GOP nominee.
"That was a seminal moment in the campaign," Zandi remembers. "I think that's clearly a reason President Obama became President Obama."
3. YOU'VE GOT (E)MAIL
One risk for Clinton isn't what she might say on the campaign trail now. It's what she might have written when she was secretary of State years ago.
The longstanding drama over her use of a private email server has dogged her campaign and isn't over yet. In the latest chapter, the FBI last month turned over to the State Department nearly 15,000 additional emails to and from Clinton that investigators had managed to recover. Federal judges handling legal actions over the emails have ordered the release of some or all of them — something that could happen before Election Day.
Even if the emails contain little new information, much less some smoking gun, stories about their release would be an unwelcome distraction for Clinton and her campaign, forcing them to deal with questions about her actions and her honesty.
What's more, hackers linked to Russia have been leaking emails that seem designed to disrupt the U.S. election. The unauthorized release of emails from the Democratic National Committee just before the party's convention forced the resignation of party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Another batch, out last week, showed former secretary of State Colin Powell characterizing Clinton as greedy and arrogant while calling Trump "a national disgrace" and "an international pariah."
Those particular emails presumably didn't do much good for either candidate.
"The vast, vast majority of voters have already made their judgments about these two candidates, and ... I doubt any last-minute revelations will change those perceptions," says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who has worked on presidential campaigns since 1984 and ran Howard Dean's 2004 bid for the nomination. But Trippi says continuing controversies could affect who bothers to vote.
"If a picture of Donald Trump with David Duke emerged in the final weeks or a corresponding damaging email revelation were to hit Clinton," he says, "the biggest impact might not be changing anyone's mind but in stoking turnout against one of them."
4. WORLD OF WOE
Perhaps the least predictable potential development would be a foreign policy crisis or terrorism attack. There is no shortage of hot spots, and the uncertainty that surrounds the campaign, particularly with a lame-duck president in the White House, may encourage regimes in such capitals as Moscow and Pyongyang to test the United States.
That could have been part of Russia's calculation in August 2008 when it escalated a low-level conflict into a full-scale war with Georgia over two breakaway regions. Bush declared the action "unacceptable" but Russia prevailed, and the regions remain under de facto Russian control.
This month, North Korea held its fifth and most powerful nuclear test, evidence that the reclusive regime had mastered the basics of detonating a nuclear weapon. There is also the continuing threat of terror attacks directed or inspired by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
"The traditional model is that bad news helps the challenger, not the incumbent," says Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University who served on the National Security Council staff for presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. "Any bad news should hurt her and reinforce the pressure for change, helping him. But the question in 2016 is, do the traditional rules apply when the candidates are so idiosyncratic?"
The sort of crisis that calls for "calm control and a measured temperament" — for instance, a nuclear showdown with North Korea's Kim Jong-un — could underscore Clinton's argument that Trump is too impulsive and combative to be trusted as commander in chief.
But a dispute with Iran that called into question the wisdom of the Obama administration's nuclear deal could rebound to Trump's benefit, says Feaver, who advised the Bush campaign in 2004. "And an attack on the U.S. homeland, particularly one tagged to ISIS or Syria, would drastically reinforce the Trump narrative."
Indeed, Trump spoke out Saturday night after only initial reports on the explosions in New York City. "I must tell you that just before I got off the plane, a bomb went off in New York and nobody knows exactly what’s going on," he told a campaign event in Colorado Springs, Colo. "But, boy, we are living in a time -- we better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough."