Toby Talbot  /  AP file
Between now and when voters go to the polls in November, a host of certain and potential events could influence their choices.
By NBC Political Unit
updated 8/6/2004 5:40:05 PM ET 2004-08-06T21:40:05

Election Day is now well in sight and with the campaigns no longer waiting for a Labor Day kickoff, the next 89 days will go non-stop. Beyond finding Osama bin Laden, here are 19 other events and dynamics, listed in roughly chronological order, which will or might occur between now and the end of the election cycle, and could affect the outcome or otherwise play big in the storyline. (By the way, this is not an exhaustive list.)

1. Monthly job numbers
The July employment data came out Friday; the August data are due in early September; etc.  Given concerns about a "soft spot" developing in the economy, one analyst says, an increase in the unemployment rate could affect the course of the campaign. 

2. Oil supply disruption...
...or even an excuse to increase the risk premium would mean a sudden rise in gas prices.

3. Republican convention: August 30-Sept. 2
Democrats worried last year when Republicans set their convention in New York so close to the Sept. 11 anniversary, fearing President Bush would get a boost from voters rallying around the president. That may still hold true. But he will also come due for some very vocal criticism over homeland security funding from, among others: the firefighters union, which is backing Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry; Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer; and some Sept. 11 victims' relatives. He also will have to be careful not to look as though he's politicizing the tragedy. Bush's campaign is already trying to lower expectations by saying he won't get a bounce out of the convention. After the harmony Kerry enjoyed in his hometown of Boston, be prepared for a rougher welcome for Bush in New York.

4. Congressional debate and actions on Bush's Sept. 11 commission proposals
Congress returns from recess as early as Sept. 7. Bush's partial embrace of some of the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations lets him look proactive and closes the gap with what Kerry has called for, but his leaving most of the details to Congress sets up some potentially ugly partisan fights on the Hill. NBC’s Mike Viquiera confirms that the House, at least, plans to pass some proposals before the Sept. 11 anniversary, but the big-ticket items are likely to require more than four days' deliberation and will be debated through the fall into a lame-duck session. The White House is probably betting Democrats can't afford to look obstructionist, after Republicans hammered Democrats like Max Cleland in the 2002 election for voting against the Department of Homeland Security.

5. Sept. 11 anniversary
We don't know yet how either Bush or Kerry plans to observe the third anniversary. Kerry observed the second anniversary with low-key events in Boston.

6. 1,000 U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq
At this rate, we probably can expect to see the 1,000th United States troop fatality sometime in September. Hardly Vietnam, but for a war that Bush arguably declared over back in May, still an unfortunate milestone for him.

7. Assault weapons ban expiration: Sept. 13
Candidate Bush backed an extension of the assault weapons ban during the 2000 campaign.  While he hasn't commented on the issue since then, his advisers have said he would sign an extension into law if Congress passes one.  But he has done nothing visible to push for passage. The House GOP leadership (read: Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas) has suggested that bringing up the extension would be a waste of time because there aren't enough votes to pass it, giving Democrats the chance to decry how the GOP let the ban lapse without having to actually vote on it themselves; Democrats in swing areas probably would prefer not to vote.  Kerry has called for an extension of the ban, and earlier this year made a trip to DC to vote on an extension, but never got the chance to.

8. Potential bombshell issue: Social Security
Candidate Bush got credit with the media and the public for daring to talk up the "third rail" of politics: reforming Social Security. The only major 2000 campaign plank he hasn't attempted to fulfill, Bush may soon start talking up a need to address Social Security in his second term.  The issue has been noticeably absent from the debate thus far; Kerry finally mentioned it in his Boston acceptance speech, saying he won't privatize it, and Bush's "ownership"-themed second-term agenda seems to leave room to push personal retirement accounts. Political analysts suggest that middle-aged, well-educated voters recognize that the system needs reforming and that the Democratic argument against the GOP "trying to take away Social Security" may sound tired, but some Republicans are clearly nervous about the idea of starting that discussion shortly before the election, with a still-sputtering stock market, even if the reforms wouldn't be undertaken until afterward. Another big issue for Bush with personal accounts: paying for the transition costs (with what?).

9. Potential nationalizing issue: prescription drug benefits/drug reimportation
Per political analyst Charlie Cook, this is the one issue out there with the potential to "nationalize" the election, helping not only Kerry but also Democrats further down the ballot, if Democratic candidates use it effectively.

10. Early voting
Twenty-seven states have early voting. The earliest voting permitted anywhere is in Delaware, beginning Sept. 18. Early voting has become increasingly popular and widespread: Voters like the convenience, and the parties like it because being able to determine who has already voted helps them more narrowly target those who remain undecided. In fact, the parties are likely to encourage early voting this cycle as a way to clear the decks of committed supporters and concentrate their GOTV efforts on those who haven't made up their minds. Election experts say there is no way to estimate right now what percentage of the electorate may take advantage of early voting, but they do expect an increase from 2000. 

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

The other 23 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting but have state-specific requirements, some of which include meeting strict requirements to vote absentee.

11. The debt ceiling
The U.S. Treasury Secretary has informed Congress that the ceiling must be raised by late September-early October.  Democrats will use the occasion to slam Bush's tax cuts for partly causing the record deficit.

12. Debates
The presidential debates in the fall of 2000 — specifically, then-candidate Al Gore's demeanor — played a big role in shifting the dynamic of that campaign. President Bush won't be able to benefit from low expectations in 2004 as he did last time. Kerry did not distinguish himself in the Democratic primary debates in 2003-2004, but performed quite aggressively and well in his debates against former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld in 1996.  The Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled three presidential debates for Sept. 30, Oct. 8, and Oct. 13, with a vice-presidential debate on Oct. 5. Kerry has agreed to take part in these; Bush so far has not. 

13. Military absentee ballots
As of mid-July, the Pentagon received 340,000 requests for military absentee ballots — compared to 250,000 total requested in 2000 — and that number is expected to rise.

14. World Series
Much of America tunes out Oct. 23.

15. Disruption due to a terrorist attack or terror alert
The House recently passed a resolution asserting that the election will not be disrupted by a terrorist attack. Bush and Kerry have expressed the same view. But as a practical matter, there is no getting around the possibility that some portion of the electorate could be physically prevented from voting due to an attack or a terror alert, and little has been done to safeguard voting systems or the ballots themselves.

16. Colorado electoral vote initiative
On Nov. 2, Coloradoans will vote on a ballot initiative which, if passed, would throw out the state's winner-take-all electoral vote assignment and replace it with one that assigns electoral votes proportionately according to the popular vote. TheRocky Mountain News recently reported that if this system had been in effect in 2000, "Gore would have won the electoral college vote 269-268; Bush would have received 5 EVs and Gore 3."  If the measure passes, it will go into effect immediately. It's seen as potentially helping Democrats because Bush is given the edge to win the state and passage would mean Kerry gets some — rather than zero — electoral votes.  Republican opponents of the measure, including Gov. Bill Owens, argue that the new system would make the state irrelevant. The Democratic organizer of the initiative expects challenges to be filed to his petitions, but he turned in about twice as many as are legally required. 

17. Change in control of the Senate
Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 advantage in the Senate (Independent Jim Jeffords sides with the Democrats). Between the two chambers of Congress, the Senate today seems more likely than the House to flip from GOP to Democratic control, but that's not saying a lot since Democrats would basically need to run the table.  Stuart Rothenberg says Democrats would need to win eight of the 10 most competitive races to regain control.  If Kerry wins the White House, they'd need to win seven, with Edwards able to break a 50-50 tie. 

17a. Louisiana Senate runoff: Dec. 4
As everyone knows by now, Louisiana holds its open (to candidates of all parties) primary on election day, and a runoff between the top two finishers takes place a month later if no candidate breaks 50 percent in the primary. If control of the Senate hangs in the balance, a runoff in the race to replace retiring Democrat John Breaux would be a critical election.

17b. Massachusetts Senate special
The heavily Democrat Massachusetts legislature recently passed, by a veto-proof majority, a law requiring that a special election be held to fill "President" Kerry's Senate seat between 145 and 160 days after the vacancy were to occur. Kerry was last re-elected in 2002 and is not up for re-election until 2008. Should he hold onto his Senate seat until he is inaugurated in late January, the special would most likely occur in June. Or, he could resign from his seat anytime after getting elected president, meaning the special could occur as early as April. Unless Republicans field a heavyweight like current Gov. Mitt Romney, Weld or former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, Democrats would be heavily favored to keep this seat.  But on the off chance that control of the Senate hangs in the balance and a GOP heavyweight runs, this special would become the focus of an all-out war.

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