Forget the end of summer, Labor Day is the unofficial start of the final sprint to Election Day for presidential campaigns.
So, while many Americans will be thinking about starting school, not wearing white, and the option of having pumpkin flavored beverages, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be fighting to win over voters during a quickly closing window.
Both campaigns are now facing a number of key dates this fall that have the potential to shape the final outcome of the campaign. Trump has trailed Clinton both nationally and in the key battleground states since the end of the party conventions in July but her lead has narrowed in recent days. Now the stakes grow higher each day as a series of milestone markers loom large beginning this week.
Calendar Highlights This Fall
- Sept. 7: Commander-in-chief forum
- Sept. 23: Production schedule for release of additional Clinton emails expected
- Sept. 23: First states begin early voting
- Sept. 26: First Presidential Debate
- Oct. 4: Vice Presidential Debate
- Oct. 9: Second Presidential Debate
- Oct. 19: Third Presidential Debate
Voters will get a chance to compare Clinton and Trump on Wednesday at the Commander-in-Chief Forum sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and airing on NBC and MSNBC. It's the first joint candidate event of the general election, and the White House hopefuls will appear back-to-back to face questions about national security, the military and veterans affairs.
The forum is the only joint appearance scheduled before the first states begin early voting. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have some form of early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the earliest of those states begin voting in less than three weeks.
On September 26, the first of three presidential debates will be held at Hofstra University in New York. Four years ago, Mitt Romney's strong debate performance in his opening showdown with President Barack Obama helped him temporarily cut into the president's lead, but ultimately one good debate performance alone was not enough for the former Massachusetts governor.
Not A Day To Waste
Early voting has become a major factor in presidential elections — almost 32 percent of voters cast ballots early in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was a slight increase from 2008, when less than 30 percent of votes were cast early. Clinton's campaign has been heavily courting those voters with a robust ground operation focused on engaging supporters and getting them to cast their ballots before Election Day. How Trump plans to take advantage of the early vote remains unclear, with advisers saying they will be ready but revealing little in the way of details.
Any disorganization in get-out-the-vote efforts could hinder either campaign's ability to capitalize on a strong debate performance. Four years ago, Romney enjoyed a surge of support in absentee and early voting in the wake of his first debate performance but Obama enjoyed a more steady stream of pre-election day support with his robust turnout machine.
In addition to questions about Trump's campaign organization, the candidate remains at a huge disadvantage in paid TV advertising. Though he has stepped up ad buying, he is still being heavily outspent by Clinton by a 10-to-1 margin, according to ad-spending data from Advertising Analytics.
It's why some, like the conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, have treated the first Monday of September like a deadline for the real estate mogul.
"If they can't get Mr. Trump to change his act by Labor Day, the GOP will have no choice but to write off the nominee as hopeless and focus on salvaging the Senate and House and other down-ballot races," they wrote in an editorial published August 14.
It's a deadline Trump and his allies have somewhat embraced after a chaotic summer filled with campaign shakeups and falling poll numbers. The businessman has taken steps to change the direction of his campaign by bringing in a new campaign manager, Stephen Bannon, who ran the conservative Breitbart News website and Kellyanne Conway, a pollster who had already been advising his White House bid.
"I think there's always a time, as you approach Labor Day, where campaigns evolve and change," GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence said after the resignation of campaign chair Paul Manafort.
Other conservatives are hopeful that the email scandal plaguing Clinton's campaign could result in some sort of October surprise. An additional 15,000 more Clinton emails discovered by the FBI during its investigation into the former secretary of state's use of a private email server could be released this fall.
And last Friday's release of the FBI notes taken during the agency's interview with Clinton for their investigation into her emails have raised more questions. None of the information has yielded a smoking gun but the ongoing disclosures have contributed to an erosion in her lead.
Trump's surrogates are hopeful those concerns will be even more reflected in the polls once Americans tune in to the final leg of an exhausting race.
"I think what you're going to see is these polls will begin to tighten in the next couple of weeks and by Labor Day or thereafter, I think you're going to be back to an even race if we continue down this path," Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus said last month.
It's been over 16 months since Clinton announced her candidacy, and more than 14 months since Trump announced his. Now the 2016 presidential election is down to a 64-day sprint to to the finish.