Analysis

Trump Can’t Count on Another October Surprise

His COVID diagnosis barely affected the election. What else could?

Donald Trump
American president Donald Trump attends a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018 (Office of the President of the Republic of Finland/Juhani Kandell)

President Donald Trump’s (not so) shocking coronavirus diagnosis had all the markings of the fabled “October surprise” American election-watchers look for every four years.

In the world of geopolitical forecasting, you would call an October surprise a “Red Dragon”: something rare, highly impactful, yet to an extent foreseeable. This contrasts with a “Black Swan”, which comes out of nowhere.

Trump getting COVID was certainly a Red Dragon: wandering around campaign events without wearing a mask and taking only the barest precautions, it was more surprising that it took him so many months to contract the disease.

From the standpoint of who will win the election, the diagnosis seems to only have reinforced Joe Biden’s lead, not undercut it. Polls suggest Americans have little sympathy for the president, and his maskless bravado on Monday on the White House balcony surely won’t convince them that this is a man who takes the pandemic, and his own health, seriously.

Could another October surprise flip the script for Trump?

Probably not. Here’s why.

October surprises that matter

It’s easy to misread political drama for actual events that shift the trajectory of an election. Famous October surprises include Richard Nixon’s sudden announcement that “Peace is at hand” in Vietnam days before the 1972 election. But that one is more of a red herring: Nixon was already well ahead.

There are some that do matter. In September and October 2008, the American economy began to seriously experience the financial crisis, and the narrow race between John McCain and Barack Obama morphed into an unfavorable referendum on Republican economic policies. Obama won handily in November.

It happened to a lesser extent again in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy appeared to help Obama edge over the line. In a tough race, that last-minute moment of presidential authority may have helped the Democrat tip over the otherwise competitive Mitt Romney.

Criteria

So for Trump to have an October surprise that matters, it must be a) beyond just drama, like his COVID diagnosis, and b) seismic, touching the lives of millions of voters and helping them make up their minds.

Unfortunately for Trump, there aren’t many events that would fit the criteria. The economy will not recover in the next few weeks; that pain is permanently on the ballot, as sky-high unemployment, along with discouraged workers, crippled his economic record.

Social unrest driven by racism and inequality has no easy solution the infamous dealmaker could try to handshake his way through. There is no Martin Luther King Jr. to appear next to in a photo-op, no Black Lives Matter president he could invite to the White House for peace talks. That, too, will haunt him through the election.

No help from abroad

And overseas? Minus Russia, Israel and the Gulf Arabs, most friends and foes are rooting against Trump.

The Gulf Arabs, and in particular the United Arab Emirates, tried to throw him a political bone by normalizing relations with Israel, but even in the best of years the Arab-Israeli conflict (in which the Gulf Arabs play a marginal role at best) is low on American voters’ list of priorities.

Other sudden foreign-policy victories appear impossible. China and Iran, Trump’s biggest enemies, want him to lose, and won’t concede anything that might let him shock the electorate into support. North Korea may like the Trump approach (photo-ops, recognition), but dislikes that America still wants it to denuclearize. They won’t give Trump a much-needed boost either.

Miracles and disasters

Trump did hold out hope for a miracle vaccine, but nobody else thinks one will be ready this month. His recent COVID diagnosis could be an opportunity to prove that treatment has improved, particularly with antiviral remdesivir, a coronavirus antibody treatment, and the steroid dexamethasone. But that could backfire if Trump’s condition worsens.

As for natural disasters, the president has had plenty to choose from: a record-breaking hurricane season not yet over (Hurricane Delta, anyone?) and a massive wildfire crisis out West. Yet Trump can’t seem to break his paper towel-throwing habit of undermining his own authority during times of national need. Few Americans are impressed with his response to these events.

A Islamic terrorist attack would play into Trump’s nativist, tough-guy hands. That remains a lurking possibility and one that radicals in the Sunni world might want to carry out. They see Trump’s chaotic leadership as beneficial to their long-term aims.

But although they have the motive, they appear to lack the means: American counterterrorism is stronger than ever and the attacks that have happened in recent years have been lone-wolf strikes that barely nudged the political needle.

Biden

Perhaps the only surprise that could change the race: if Biden got a severe case of COVID.

There is already disquiet about Biden’s age, even though he is only three years older than Trump. Should he get knocked out by the coronavirus, it could upend the election in key states. Especially if Trump makes a full recovery.

But Biden, unlike Trump, is taking precautions, and his team is well aware of this risk. It’s a Red Dragon, but not one that should be counted on like Trump’s COVID catch.

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