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‘Cacophony of chaos’: why the US election outcome is more uncertain than ever

It was just like old times. Donald Trump stood at a presidential lectern, encouraging a rambunctious crowd of supporters – few of whom wore face masks or physically distanced – to turn and boo the “fake news” media. Behind him Air Force One bathed in a glorious sunset, a huge US flag dangled from a crane and two giant signs declared, “Make America great again!”

Thursday’s outdoor campaign rally at an airport hangar in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, carried echoes of 2016 when Trump whipped up excitement in unglamorous corners of battleground states to overthrow conventional wisdom and edge out Hillary Clinton. Once again, Trump is drawing bigger and noisier crowds than his rival Joe Biden.

But in 2020 the political crystal ball is cloudier than ever.

It was President George W Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who once ruminated on “known knowns”, “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. The 2020 presidential election is now a smorgasbord of all three.

Related: ‘The politics of racial division’: Trump borrows Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’

Can the opinion polls be trusted, or are they missing “hidden” Trump voters? Could Biden, like Clinton, win the popular vote but lose the electoral college? Will people vote by mail, despite the president’s efforts to undermine the postal service, or feel safe queuing to vote on election day in the middle of a global pandemic? Will the result be known on election night or take days or even weeks? Could the result – like 2000 – by decided in the courts?

“You couldn’t script this any worse, short of hurricanes and earthquakes taking place at the same time across the country,” said Tara Setmayer, a political analyst and former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill. “It is a cacophony of chaos being mixed together all at once as we approach election day.”

The miasma of uncertainty was apparent over the past week when a batch of polls and burst of campaigning gave conflicting signals. Some observers were adamant they showed Biden holding on to a solid lead of seven or eight percentage points, higher than Clinton’s at the same stage, and praised him for displaying both empathy and steeliness in a series of speeches. “5 reasons Biden’s odds of victory look better than ever,” ran a headline in New York magazine on Thursday.

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