Could an “October surprise” still change the 2020 election?

Could an “October surprise” still change the 2020 election?
Source: Leah Millis, Reuters
Considering how historically unusual this year has been, it’s difficult to know what an October surprise in 2020 would be.

One of the common tropes in American politics is that of the “October surprise,” an unexpected major news story that comes out in the month prior to the national election. These surprises have the potential to upend a presidential race by damaging or bolstering one candidate. A race whose conclusion seems all-but-certain early in the month can be completely changed weeks later.

At least, that’s the common belief. While it’s true negative news just weeks prior to an election can hurt a candidate in polling, by late October, most voters have already determined who they’re voting for. That may be especially true this year since a record number of early votes have already been cast.

However, the 2016 election, which many pundits in October believed was easily in the bag for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was rocked by a few major news stories. Both Clinton and her opponent, eventual winner Donald Trump, had catastrophically negative news cycles in October that year.

It’s that reality that has many people believing that the final weeks of October have the potential to change everything. Considering how historically unusual this year has been, though, it’s difficult to know what an October surprise in 2020 would be.

Could surprises still lurk in the run-up to the 2020 election?

With less than three weeks until Election Day and with over 10 million votes already cast, it would take something fairly spectacular to change the course of this election. Even so, election watchers are cautious about trusting polls after Trump’s improbable victory in 2016.

There have been frequent warnings about attempted voter suppression, as well as concerns that the election may be stolen, but neither one of those scenarios constitutes an October surprise. Instead, such a phenomenon would require an unexpected turn of events between now and Election Day that dramatically shifts voter opinion.

October 2016 offers multiple relevant examples. First, there was The Washington Post’s October 7 publishing of the infamous Access Hollywood tape from 2005. On the tape, Trump, then the host of the reality TV series “The Apprentice,” can be heard bragging about aggressively grabbing women without consent. In polling immediately following the tape’s release, Trump’s numbers cratered.

The same day as the Post’s story, WikiLeaks released the hacked emails of John Podesta, a close Clinton ally. There is evidence that the Trump campaign coordinated with WikiLeaks regarding the leak of damaging emails related to the Clinton campaign, but it isn’t clear that the Podesta leak directly hurt Clinton’s campaign.

However, weeks later, on October 28, then-FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress to inform them of an ongoing investigation into newly found Clinton-related emails. That letter received front-page coverage in many prominent papers, including The New York Times. Nate Silver, of the polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight, has argued that the letter cost Clinton the election.

It remains a point of debate how much those October events affected the election’s outcome, but they were incontrovertibly major stories in the weeks leading up to Election Day. So, in 2020, the question remains: are there any such news stories waiting to be released?

A surprising COVID-19 vaccine?

Writing for The Washington Post on October 6, opinion columnist Greg Sargent believes we’ve already seen Trump’s “October surprise”: his recovery from COVID-19.

“When President Trump released videos showcasing his return to the White House on Monday evening as a glorious personal triumph,” Sargent writes, “he showed us exactly how he hopes to salvage his reelection hopes … Trump’s endgame is to offset months of towering failures on the coronavirus by showcasing his personal defeat of it as proof that he was right to push the country back to normalcy — while also announcing a vaccine, or at least dangling one as imminent.”

The implication is that, despite COVID-19 vaccine development still being a work in progress, Trump will nonetheless announce a vaccine is ready just weeks or even days before the election.

Such a development might not qualify as a “surprise” – Trump has been promising a vaccine would be ready before the end of the year since May. However, both the firms developing the vaccines and the United States Food and Drug Administration have stressed they will not rush a vaccine’s release for an arbitrary deadline, a reality Trump has acknowledged.

If Trump were to announce in the next couple weeks that a vaccine would be made available to the whole country, that could certainly disrupt the election news cycle.

The military option

Another surprise that Trump could release is military action. So says professor and author Michael T. Klare in an October 12 piece for The Nation. Klare argues that with Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in much of the polling, the president may gin up a military offensive to “rally many of those independent voters who are now leaning toward his opponent.”

Naming “China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea” as possible targets, Klare writes, “it would be surprisingly easy for Trump to ignite a war … because the Pentagon has adopted an offensive stance toward all four of those putative adversaries.” As Klare notes, three of those four countries have nuclear weapons, so it would be inadvisable, to say the least, for the US to attack them.

Nonetheless, this hypothetical is given some credence by the president himself, who, in October 2012, suggested former President Barack Obama would do exactly what Klare says Trump might do. Trump tweeted on October 22, “Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected–be careful Republicans!”

Obama did not launch a military offensive against Iran in 2012 and won the election a few weeks later all the same.

A surprise for Biden?

Most of the discussion around potential October surprises – including some form of foreign interference – involves an unexpected boost to Trump’s campaign. This is possibly due to Biden’s apparent strong lead. Or it may be a reflection of how few controversies seem to stick to Trump. Even a bombshell report about Trump’s alleged illegal tax evasion has struggled to gain much traction.

Yet, there is conceivably one surprise that would likely cement a Biden victory: Trump could end up being more severely sick than he and his doctors have portrayed. Many commentators, including doctors, have voiced their opinion that Trump’s recovery from COVID-19 occurred with unusual quickness. Many believed Trump’s condition was worse than the White House let on.

Since being released from Walter Reed Medical Center on Monday, October 5, Trump has produced multiple videos in which he has claimed he is feeling in top health. A week after leaving the hospital, Trump has committed himself to a full week of in-person campaign stops. On Monday, October 12, Trump told a crowd at a rally, “I went through it now. They say I’m immune. I feel so powerful.”

A sudden deterioration in health – for either candidate – would certainly throw the race into question. Short of that or any other surprises in October, though, it appears the biggest deciding factor in the 2020 election could be history-making voter turnout.

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