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What's Changed And What Hasn't This Election Season


As we reach the finish line of this presidential campaign, let's remember where things were at the start of the year. President Donald Trump had been impeached by the House and was being tried in the Senate. Former Vice President Joe Biden was trailing behind other Democrats in early voting states. And that was all before the pandemic.

Through one of the most tumultuous campaigns in decades, the polls have actually stayed pretty static. Two of my colleagues who've followed every twist and turn are here to walk us through what has changed and what hasn't during this election. White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been following the Trump campaign, and political correspondent Asma Khalid has been covering the Biden campaign. Congratulations on making it to November, you two.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At least two days into it.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with the first week in February because I'm imagining this is a week neither of you will ever forget. There was literally a huge national news event every day.

KEITH: Super Bowl Sunday, then Monday was the Iowa caucuses. Then Tuesday was the president's State of the Union address, where he was riding high. He was talking about how great the economy was. And it was clear that that was going to be his message. He was - he thought he was going to be running against Bernie Sanders and socialism and about how great the U.S. economy was.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For those watching at home tonight, I want you to know we will never let socialism destroy American health care.

KEITH: And then Wednesday the Senate votes to acquit him in the impeachment trial.


JOHN ROBERTS: Two-thirds of the senators present not having pronounced him guilty, the Senate adjudges that the respondent, Donald John Trump, president of the United States, is not guilty as charged in the first article of impeachment.

SHAPIRO: Now, in ordinary times, any one of those might describe a campaign-defining event. But one of the main through lines we're going to see is that not many things really did change the arc of this campaign, including Joe Biden's rough start to the primary season, where he came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire before finally turning things around in South Carolina on February 29.


JOE BIDEN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: Asma, you were with Biden there.

KHALID: That's right. And really, you know, I think the whole mood of his campaign fundamentally shifted. They had been arguing for weeks and, frankly, months that really, the race, they felt, was going to shift once you saw more Black voters participate in this Democratic primary process. And that's what we saw in South Carolina.


BIDEN: Just days ago, the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead. Now, thanks to all of you, the heart of the Democratic Party, we just won. And we've won big because of you.

SHAPIRO: And February 29 was a notable day for another reason. That's also the day we learned for the first time of a person dying here in the U.S. of COVID-19. Tam, how did the White House respond to the arrival of this disease in the U.S.?

KEITH: Yeah. I was there at the White House on February 29 for a coronavirus task force briefing.


TRUMP: At this moment, we have 22 patients in the United States currently.

KEITH: They were trying to be reassuring at that time, to say, you know, most Americans don't have anything to worry about. And some officials were saying, but that could change at any moment. President Trump was emphasizing the positive. As we now know, he knew how serious it was and how serious it could be.


TRUMP: So healthy people, if you're healthy, you will probably go through a process, and you'll be fine.

SHAPIRO: All right. Then over the course of March, it becomes clear this pandemic is going to define the campaign. The economy shuts down. Unemployment skyrockets. What did that look like from where each of you were sitting?

KHALID: You know, at the start of March, it didn't really seem to be that coronavirus was going to overtake our lives as it has. On the eve of Super Tuesday, March 2, was really this critical moment where Joe Biden consolidated the support, I think, of his former rivals.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: I am ending my campaign and endorsing Joe Biden for president.

KHALID: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, the former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke all endorsed Joe Biden on the ground in Texas. And there was just, you know, no sense that folks should be social distancing at that point. I don't know that any of us knew that we should be sanitizing our hands or maybe not shaking hands at that point. And that was a big moment. It really made it clear that this was going to be a two-person Democratic primary between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

KEITH: And that same week, I traveled with President Trump to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And let's just say that things were not going well, especially in the area of testing.


TRUMP: But anybody that needs a test can have a test.

KEITH: There simply was not an infrastructure in place to test people for the coronavirus. And at the time, I remember asking if this thing was worse than we realized.


TRUMP: In this big, vast land of ours, this great country of ours, we have 240 cases. Most of those people are going to be fine.

KEITH: He was really downplaying things. He was saying, well, maybe it's not any worse than the flu. And I came away from that trip to the CDC thinking, oh, wow, things are about to change in a big way. And within days, the entire country was shut down, and it really took the energy out of the primary. And any chance that Bernie Sanders was going to have to make a comeback, it was just gone. I think that coronavirus really hastened the end of the Democratic primary.

SHAPIRO: So in late May, the economy is virtually shut down. People are dying of COVID-19. And then police in Minneapolis kneel on the neck of George Floyd, killing him.






SHAPIRO: How does this event and the national protests that followed shape the presidential campaign?

KHALID: So, you know, for a couple of months, as the pandemic was spreading across the country, Joe Biden didn't really leave his house in Wilmington, Del. After George Floyd's death was when we first saw him make one of these rare appearances outside of his house.


BIDEN: Nobody can pretend. The Band-Aid has been ripped off.

KHALID: He visited a church in his hometown to meet with black community leaders and address some of the frustrations around George Floyd's death. And that was the beginning of when we saw Joe Biden venture out to try to hold in-person, albeit socially distant, campaign events.


BIDEN: I can't breathe - George Floyd's last words. But they didn't die with him. They're still being heard, echoing all across this nation.


KEITH: The image that people will remember from this time for President Trump came on June 1. He had quickly turned to make his focus as related to the issues that were being protested to be a focus on law and order.


TRUMP: Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa and others.

KEITH: He delivered a speech about law and order in the Rose Garden. While he was speaking, you could hear the crowd being cleared from a park nearby. You could hear the canisters of pepper spray being shot into the crowd. There were booms and bangs.


TRUMP: ...The brutal death of George Floyd. My administration is fully committed...

KEITH: And then after his speech, he walks through the park over to St. John's Church, this historic church that had been damaged in protests the night before. And he holds up a Bible, and he doesn't really say anything. He just holds up the Bible. And to get that photo op, which is now included in his ads, they had to forcefully clear peaceful protesters out of the way.


KEITH: For so many people, that really just sums up President Trump's approach to that time.

SHAPIRO: In August, you get some of the events that we would see in any presidential election - the announcement of a running mate, the party conventions. In this crazy, upside-down year, even the conventions are not normal, with most of it happening virtually and Trump delivering an acceptance speech from the White House. And then in September, with nearly 200,000 Americans dead of COVID-19, the liberal lion of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dies of cancer - another event that you would expect to upend the presidential race. What was the actual impact of it?

KHALID: Well, for Democrats, it became this huge motivating factor. You know, the online donor website ActBlue for Democrats say that they raised a record amount of money. I believe between Friday night and midday Sunday, something like a hundred-some million dollars was raised on the site.

KEITH: And for President Trump, he, I think, really thought that nominating Amy Coney Barrett - and ultimately, she was confirmed - was going to be a big selling point in the final weeks of his campaign. But what ended up happening is the event in the White House Rose Garden and private events indoors...


TRUMP: The nomination of a Supreme Court justice.

KEITH: That turned into a super-spreader event. Numerous White House officials, senators, the president of the United States and many people in his inner circle all got coronavirus.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: What a day of dramatic developments. Again, that test overnight...

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You see Marine One on the White House lawn preparing to take the president to...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after testing positive for coronavirus.

KEITH: That - I mean, that took the president off of the campaign trail and completely contradicted the whole idea that he was trying to push as a candidate that everything was OK; nothing to see here with coronavirus.

SHAPIRO: So that brings us to the final stretch. And how does where we are right now compared to where you thought we would be a year ago, before all this upheaval?

KHALID: Gosh, Ari. That feels like answering this, like, hypothetical, surreal question that I totally can't even compute because it doesn't mesh with where we have been - right? - in the reality of COVID. Biden entered the primary relatively well-known, relatively well-liked and thought to be the Democrat who had the best shot of taking on President Trump. And that is exactly where this race has ended, right? Like, I don't feel like much has changed in the trajectory of this race. If you look at polling, it has been very, very steady. And look. I know a lot has changed in our own lives, whether it's schools shutting down, a sputtering economy. But none of that has seemed to fundamentally change the arc of this campaign.

KEITH: Yeah. Coming into this, I imagined that this would be a dark and difficult campaign year, that this would not be a campaign of joy and uplift. But this certainly has been a more difficult year than, I think, anyone could have imagined. But one thing doesn't change. That's the states that are the critical swing states. And so tonight, for their final events, Joe Biden is going to be in Pennsylvania, and Donald Trump is going to be in Michigan. And I think we could have predicted that 11 months ago.

SHAPIRO: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and political correspondent Asma Khalid, thank you for all of your reporting this year, and good luck in this homestretch.

KEITH: You're welcome.

KHALID: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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