We're now in the home stretch — in just two months, voters will head to the polls and cast their votes for president and races up and down the ballot.
And while the last year and a half has been unpredictable, from the rise of Donald Trump, a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton and what some say is the demise of political discourse, the usual campaign tactics, messages and themes are falling into place ahead of voting on Nov. 8.
"We normally say that the races pick up after Labor Day," said Tim Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "I still think that will be the case, though I've seen some suggest otherwise. It may be that pretty much everyone knows Clinton and Trump, and we here in Iowa have seen our share of visits and ads already, but I think there are still a lot of people who don't pay too much attention until after the holiday, particularly those who are registered no party."
Hagle is right on visits — almost two dozen candidates crisscrossed the state ahead of the February Iowa Caucus, which gave us winners Ted Cruz and Clinton. Now, Trump and Clinton — the two most unpopular candidates in modern history, according to public opinion polls — compete for votes in swing states, while third-party candidates hope to make a dent in poll numbers.
And Iowans can expect more visits even as polls in Iowa show a close race between Trump and Clinton, both of whom already have made campaign stops since securing the nomination.
The latest polling in Iowa is much closer than some other states that usually get attention. A CBS News/YouGov poll in recent weeks had Trump on top at 44 percent and Clinton at 39 percent. Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson had 8 percent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein had 1 percent.
National polls outside of Iowa have shown Clinton ahead in recent weeks, although Trump is trending up within the last several days.
"We are just about guaranteed to get way beyond the usual level of being sick and tired about campaign ads," said Mack Shelley, chairman and professor in the political science department at Iowa State. "[The Real Clear Politics average] now has Trump up by a bit less than one point in Iowa. If other states start to drift in his direction, Iowa could well become a focal point for attack ads that impugn both candidates’ veracity and will drag us way deep into the political septic tank."
Clinton has massively outspent Trump thus far in the advertisement column, but battleground state campaigning will continue to play a large role in the candidates' strategy going forward.
Clinton has spent nearly $75 million on general election ads, while Trump is way behind at $7.7 million, according to an analysis by NBC News and Advertising Analytics. Johnson also has gone on the air in several states in recent weeks.
Along with Iowa, several states will likely decide who gets to 270 electoral votes on election night.
"Many of the other battleground states are relatively close, but it’s worth noting that in none of those states does either candidate have a majority support, so they all are pretty much up for grabs," Shelley said.
The reason? Johnson and Stein are polling in at least the single digits, and in some cases, Johnson cracks 10 percent support. The former Republican governor always had libertarian leanings, but after dropping out of the 2012 GOP primary, he officially became a Libertarian and ended up receiving about 1 percent nationally — more than a million votes.
Johnson is touting himself and running mate Bill Weld, also a former Republican governor, as an alternative to the two-party system and a choice that "most Americans" can agree with — fiscally conservative economically and socially liberal. Stein is calling for a "Green New Deal," running to the left of Clinton and trying to sway disillusioned Democrats who may have supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Johnson also is looking forward to the Commission on Presidential Debates releasing the names for the debates. If a candidate can reach 15 percent in polls, he or she can debate in front of Americans on television. And Johnson concedes if he is not on the debate stage, his chances of competing through November are slim.
Along with Iowa and the effect of third parties, Shelley and Steffen Schmidt, a university professor of political science at Iowa State, are keeping an eye on several other states that could go either way, including Ohio, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The process of preparing for the three presidential debates is usually down in the details every cycle, but the talk this cycle has been about how Clinton will prepare for Trump, who has defied all rules usually associated with politics.
"Predicting what could be regarded as a random event is really difficult, but Clinton can prepare best by being trained to respond in sound bites rather than with wonkish know-it-all monologues," Shelley said. "She also has to work really hard to make herself more likeable, perhaps with personal stories."
The first debate is set for Monday, Sept. 26.
Early on, multiple media outlets reported that Clinton may have trouble finding someone to play Trump during debate prep, but The New York Times reported last week that her team was digging into information from Trump's ghostwriter of "The Art of the Deal," and also was looking to "create a personality profile of Mr. Trump to gauge how he may respond to attacks and deal with a woman as his sole adversary on the debate stage."
"Trump would just not be the same persona if he were overly scripted," Shelley said. "Much of his base appreciates him exactly because he is not programmed and because he comes across as genuine and not scripted. When he reads from teleprompters, all the spontaneity disappears, and in so doing, he loses traction."
Either way, "It will be the biggest TV audience of any debate," Schmidt said.
CONTROL OF U.S. SENATE
Another angle to watch that hasn't had much attention yet: Control of the U.S. Senate, currently held by Republicans.
"I think there are so many invested in making sure that Trump doesn't win that the Senate and House races are not getting their regular share of attention," Hagle said. "There are undoubtedly variations in the states with Senate races depending on the specifics. So far, some of the Republican senators most thought were vulnerable are doing OK."
Democrats will need to flip five seats to take control, and more Republican seats are up in this cycle.
Across the country, candidates are taking different approaches, including a full embrace of Trump, a small endorsement but distancing and flat out avoiding any appearance of a connection to Trump.
"As for Democrats winning a majority in the Senate, it's certainly possible," Hagle said. "Again, a lot will depend on what happens in the presidential race. If Trump can get his act together, or if state Republican parties can compensate for the Trump campaign's lack of organization, then Republicans might hold control. Even if they do, however, it will be close."
LOCAL IOWA RACES
Locally, incumbent U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack hopes to get some backup in Washington from Democratic challengers in four other races.
In Iowa's U.S. Senate race, Chuck Grassley, a staple in GOP politics in the state, faces former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, and while Grassley still leads, although sometimes by just single digits, he likely will pull out a victory and cruise to a seventh term.
Grassley and Judge are both up with advertisements in the state, and notably, Grassley has gone negative in a campaign ad for the time in more than 30 years.
"The smart money would be for Grassley to win but not by a particularly impressive margin," Shelley said. "How close the race with Judge becomes will depend largely on differential party turnout and on whether independents stick with their previous pattern of breaking heavily for Grassley."
Two House races in Iowa are being watched nationally and are rated "toss-ups" by news organizations tracking specific races.
In Iowa's 1st District, incumbent Republican Rod Blum represents a district that went for President Obama by almost 14 percent. Former Cedar Rapids councilwoman Monica Vernon, a Democrat who was the lieutenant governor candidate in 2014, is challenging Blum.
Blum has worked hard on constituent service, and that should help him in the election," Hagle said. "Vernon, for her part, comes across as a better candidate than [2014 candidate Pat] Murphy did two years ago. Being a working mom and successful businesswoman plays well. Like other Dem candidates, she can try to tie Blum to Trump and look to work with the Clinton organization."
In the 3rd District, incumbent Republican David Young is facing Jim Mowrer, an Iraq war veteran who was the Democratic nominee in the 4th District in 2014.
"[I] get the impression that Mowrer isn't proving to be the rising start that some Democrats expected given his race against King [in 2014]," Hagle said. "My guess is Young will hang on, but it will likely be pretty close and events in the presidential race could make the difference."
REGISTER TO VOTE
Election day is Nov. 8, and anyone residing in Iowa who is eligible can pre-register to vote through most of October. If you miss the deadline, with a few extra documents, you can register to vote on Election Day. More information is available at sos.iowa.gov.