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Analysis

The presidential campaign ends Thursday night

Voters can still vote, but here are three reasons why the campaign will be over

An attendee stood under an American flag while waiting for a campaign rally for President Trump on Sunday in Carson City, Nevada.
An attendee stood under an American flag while waiting for a campaign rally for President Trump on Sunday in Carson City, Nevada.Stephen Lam/Getty

You can debate precisely when the 2020 presidential campaign began. Was it on Jan. 20, 2017, when President Trump’s campaign filed for reelection mere hours after he was sworn in as president? Does the clock start later, in November 2017, when Andrew Yang, who ended up being the earliest major-ish Democratic candidate to announce, entered the race? Or should we stick with the start of 2019, when most major candidates formed exploratory committees, held announcement speeches, and started visiting Iowa and New Hampshire with regularity?

Whatever one thinks about when the campaign began exactly, it is very clear when it ends: around 10:30 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, on Thursday.

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Yes, American voters will have 12 days, 2 hours, and 30 minutes until the last polls close in Alaska to cast ballots. That is when the election ends. But the campaign will be over the moment the closing statements are complete in the final presidential debate on Thursday night.

Here are three reasons why:

For tens of millions of voters, the election ended days ago

Before the debate even begins, 40 million voters will have already cast ballots, according to a national analysis of early voting by the University of Florida. For context, 137 million people voted in the 2016 presidential election. But in Texas, early voting is so robust it already adds up to half the 2016 vote total.

For those who have already voted, the campaign is, by definition, over. Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris could both drop out and move to Australia over the weekend or Trump could announce he is quitting during the debate. Doesn’t matter. These voters won’t get a second chance to do something different.

The candidates aren’t changing course after the debate

The final debate is the last chance that either candidate has to do or say anything different. There is simply nothing else on the calendar that will demand that American voters pay any attention to the race. What is likely to happen afterward: Biden will simply go back into his basement bunker where he cannot make any gaffes that might change the trajectory of an election that poll after poll suggests he will win.

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Trump, it appears, will do the opposite. He will likely continue to hold rally after rally, but cable news channels aren’t even carrying his speeches anymore, largely because Trump has lost his shock value.

So Trump is only left talking to a base so devoted to him that they will forgo public health guidelines for COVID just to be near him. The folks in that crowd have their minds made up.

Even if Trump believes he has a few tricks up his sleeve, in theory he would have used his best ones by now. His last chance will be during the final debate.

There is no evidence that a late-breaking October surprise changes anything

One problem with declaring the campaign over before voting is over is the unknowable. There are political cliches that “anything can happen” and that “that every day is a year in politics.” However, in 2020, even if one believes in those phrases, there is no indication that any development will fundamentally alter this particular campaign.

After all, 2020 has been — news flash! — a crazy year. But the most stable part of the year has been presidential polling. Biden has always had a strong lead. People know how they feel about Trump.

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Besides, remember the September surprise when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died? That was supposed to be a big moment in the presidential race! Nothing in the campaign changed. Remember when Trump announced he had COVID? That was a surprise. It happened in October. Pundits weren’t wrong when they declared, “we have no idea what will happen next” in the campaign.

Turns out, nothing really happened in the presidential race. Trump seemingly recovered healthwise, returned to the campaign trail, and didn’t even get a bump in poll numbers out of sympathy for his illness.

Sure, Trump likes doing dramatic things. He needs to do something dramatic or it appears he will lose reelection and possibly lose badly. But if he doesn’t do it by the time the debate is over Thursday night, there will be no campaign left.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.