Here's what to watch during the final two weeks of the Trump-Biden campaign

Key Points
  • Just two weeks remain in the 2020 campaign between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
  • Biden is ahead in the polls, but the final debate between the candidates could move the needle.
  • Big progress on the coronavirus vaccine could reshape Trump's messaging in the final days of the race.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Getty Images

The finish line is in sight, and the contenders have leaned into their final sprints.

Just two weeks remain until Election Day, a grand finale to a cacophonous campaign cycle that Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden both insist will define no less than the "soul" of the United States.

While the former vice president emerged from the Democratic primaries less than a year earlier, the 2020 race has been underway practically since Trump took office in early 2017, when he resumed holding his signature campaign-style rallies. In the final two weeks before Nov. 3, Trump is packing his schedule with boisterous in-person events as he works to narrow his polling deficit with Biden — and to make up the time spent off the trail while he was being treated for the coronavirus.

Biden, whose campaign has adhered much more strictly to public-health experts' guidelines for avoiding the spread of Covid-19, has hosted fewer public events in the final stretch, and none with large crowds. But his party's fundraising efforts have far outpaced the president's, allowing him to blanket the airwaves with ads and spend gobs of cash in crucial swing states.

Biden has maintained a comfortable lead in national polls, and he is also leading in several swing states. But game-changing surprises have come to be expected in the final weeks, especially in an unprecedented election being held under the cloud of the coronavirus.

Here's what to watch out for:

The final debate

Trump and Biden debated face to face for the first time in late September. It didn't go well.

Trump constantly interrupted, and Biden hurled unfiltered insults, as the debate offered plenty of heat but little light. Polls showed the debate was panned by majorities of viewers, though Biden's performance was generally viewed more favorably.

Biden and Trump's fiery first debate—Here are the highlights
Biden and Trump's fiery first debate—Here are the highlights

There's just one more chance for the candidates to assail each other, and deliver an ultimate pitch to voters, before Election Day. The second and final debate is scheduled for Thursday in Nashville and is set to be moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker. This time, Trump or Biden will be given two minutes of uninterrupted time to answer questions at the start of each segment while the other candidate's microphone is muted.

Presidential debates can make a real difference, even on the eve of an election. Richard Nixon's stiff appearance in the debate against John F. Kennedy, for instance, was seen as an inflection point in the 1960 race. Then-President George H.W. Bush's glance down at his watch in his 1992 debate against Bill Clinton became a key moment in the campaign.

But the debates themselves have been wildly politicized in 2020, and it's unclear what form the final event will take — if it takes one at all.

Another debate was supposed to be held last Thursday in Miami. But it was scrapped after the president rejected the decision by the Commission on Presidential Debates to host the event virtually. That move was made following Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization, though Trump was out of the hospital and deemed noncontagious by his doctors ahead of the event.

In its place, the two candidates participated in separate town hall events, which were aired at the same time on different networks. The president in his town hall avoided an opportunity to condemn QAnon, the baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory, while Biden refused to rule out the possibility of adding more seats to the Supreme Court if he is elected.

Ahead of the last scheduled debate, Trump has preemptively attacked Welker for being "unfair," and his campaign has complained about the format of the event. On Monday, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien shared a letter on Twitter urging the debate hosts to ensure that foreign policy would be the main focus, rather than the coronavirus, climate change or race in America.

The coronavirus

The pandemic has been a central focus of the final year of the 2020 campaign. Democrats have ripped Trump's handling of the crisis, arguing that he bears responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. that have so far been attributed to the disease.

The president, meanwhile, has frequently promised that a vaccine was on the way and that the country would be freed from Covid-19 in time for a record-breaking economic boom in 2021.

Coronavirus cases are on the rise once again, and experts warn the pandemic could be even more difficult to fight as flu season progresses. But Trump has preemptively rejected the possibility of reapplying the strict social distancing measures that squelched the economy and sent markets plummeting downward earlier in the year.

On Capitol Hill, the window of opportunity for another round of pandemic relief before the election appears to be closing shut. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have grappled for months with Trump administration negotiators, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Trump has frequently contradicted Republican leaders' desires for an additional stimulus bill and recently walked away from the negotiating table before restarting talks — all without being directly involved in any of the deliberations himself. Still, Pelosi said Democrats and the White House have "continued to narrow their differences" following an hourlong talk Monday.

Health experts have poured cold water on Trump's repeated refrain that a vaccine could come as soon as Election Day, or possibly even sooner. Even if it did, questions remain about its timeline for distribution. Trump has touted his administration's efforts to prepare to ship out millions of doses as soon as a vaccine is approved, but officials have said it could take months before most Americans are vaccinated.

But if a major development in the search for a vaccine does occur before the election, expect the Trump campaign to shout it from the rooftops.

"If there's a vaccine that's ready or if there's a therapy that's ready, I fully expect that the president will trumpet it, and do it very loudly," said Chris Campbell, former assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions.

"If that process yields a result prior to the election, I think that's all that we will hear between that day and the Election Day," Campbell said.

The October surprise

The most dramatic moments in a campaign often come in the final weeks before an election, but good luck trying to spot them in advance.

"There is always an October surprise and it at times can be needle-moving, but there's really no way to plan for it, because it's just that, it's a surprise," Campbell said.

In October 2016, there were plenty. Trump's campaign was rocked, and largely written off, after audio surfaced of him in 2005 bragging about making sexual advances on women, saying "when you're a star, they let you do it."

But soon after, focus shifted to then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. Then-FBI Director James Comey's public remarks about the Democrat's emails, delivered just a few days before the 2016 election, are arguably what cost her the presidency.

A New York Post report published last week, claiming to show "smoking gun" emails related to Biden and his son Hunter Biden is being treated as an October surprise by the Trump campaign and its surrogates.

The report, which cites Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his former top advisor, Steve Bannon, as sources, has been treated with skepticism by other news outlets. The Post alleges Hunter Biden attempted to set up a meeting between his father and a top executive at a Ukrainian company he worked for while Joe Biden was vice president.

It's unclear whether the Post's report will have a noticeable impact on the race, though the Post has also claimed polls are narrowing in the wake of its exclusive.

The president and his supporters have railed against the decisions by Facebook and Twitter to limit distribution of the story on their platforms, accusing the tech giants of politically motivated censorship.

Biden's son was at the center of Trump's impeachment fight, which revolved in large part around a phone call in which Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to "look into" the Bidens. Trump was impeached in the House and acquitted in the Senate.

Another possible October surprise may have already come and gone: the president's Covid-19 infection.

Trump revealed on Oct. 2 that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. He flew to Walter Reed Military Medical Center that same day, and was discharged three days later.

"I tend to think that the president getting coronavirus was a pretty good surprise," Campbell said, adding that Trump's apparent recovery from the virus might work in his favor.

Trump has consistently downplayed the threat of the virus and disregarded his own administration's guidelines for social distancing and wearing protective equipment to avoid spreading the disease. At least 219,950 people in the U.S. have died from Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.