At the end of the Conventions, Hillary Clinton soared ahead of Donald Trump. If the election had been held just after the two conventions, and the candidates had won everything based on polling, Clinton would have won in a landslide with 357 electoral votes, more than President Obama won in 2012.
Since that time though, Clinton's support has steadily eroded while Trump has continued to gain support. Below is what the electoral map would look like today if candidates won in every State where the polls indicate a victory:
Of course, Trump's lead in several of these states is extremely tenuous. Polling shows Trump 0.1% ahead of Clinton in critical Florida, well within the margin of error. North Carolina, Ohio, and Nevada also remain seriously in contention.
Since the end of the conventions, the momentum has moved steadily in Trump's favor. Trump seems to be convincing voters, or voters are convincing themselves, that he is not so bad or dangerous. That is pretty much all Trump needs to do to pull a majority of voters, who already hate Clinton.
All of this will likely change on Monday night after the first televised debate. Clinton seems to have the more difficult task since voters have known her record for longer and generally don't like what they see. The left wing of the Democratic Party still wishes they could have Bernie Sanders. Moderates find her too partisan. Even if she says all the right things, the majority of the country does not trust what she says.
By contrast, Trump finds himself in the enviable position that Ronald Reagan found himself in 1980. That year, voters were sick and tired of Jimmy Carter, but were afraid that Reagan was a loose canon, out of touch with reality and ready to start a war. Reagan did not have to prove he was superior to Carter in his grasp of the issues. He only had to show he was barely competent and would not push the button on day one. He passed that bar and won overwhelmingly. If Trump can do the same thing, he could very well see a path to victory.
Whether Trump can meet that low bar is very much open to question. He has no debate experience, and by all accounts is not doing much of any traditional preparation. He did well in primary debates with large numbers of participants because he only had time for a few one liners and a couple of attention grabbing statements. At this point, outrageous statements are likely to hurt rather than help. If we only hear name calling and lines like "it will be great, trust me" he is likely to fail.
Clinton will almost certain go on the attack, pressing Trump to release his taxes, talk about the Trump Foundation, past business practices, etc. Trump will likely also attack, going after the Clinton Foundation, express concerns about her health, etc. We may see some policy arguments over tax policies, ISIS, and security. Almost certainly the recent police shootings and demonstrations will be an issue, though I don't think either candidate has a good answer to that.
What makes the debates most interesting is what is not predictable. Either candidate could make a gaff, which seriously harms his or her standing with the voters. Trump is more likely to have trouble here, but is also more likely to get off surprising one liners that stick with voters.
Sadly, none of the third parties have risen to the occasion in a year when both major party candidates have such strong negatives. Libertarian Gary Johnson has only polled in the 5% - 10% range, well short of the 15% needed for debate participation. Johnson had been gaining until his well publicized gaff about not knowing what Aleppo was. The gaff itself probably would not be a big deal if it did not come just when America was getting to know him. If voters' first impressions are that this guy is clueless, they are likely not to give him a second look.
Jill Stein of the Green Party is doing even worse, polling in the 2% - 4% range. While Johnson seems to pull support from both Democrats and Republicans, with a domestic policy favored by Republicans and foreign policy favored by Democrats, Stein's support comes almost exclusively from what would otherwise be Democratic votes. Her ultra left views may attract some Sanders supporters and other liberal Democrats. Without getting any initial groundswell, most potential Green voters will see that vote as a waste that only helps Trump.
It would have been nice to have a third party candidate in the debates. In a two person race, both candidates simply need to criticize the other rather than explain why they would be good for the country themselves. In a three person race, each candidate would have to speak more positively. It seems, however, that we will be stuck with the two person dynamic in the debates.
So, we await the Monday night debates to see how it might change the course of the campaign. While most voters have made their decisions already, in this close elections the small number of undecideds becomes critical to victory. Monday night is the key to winning that group.