Assessing the October surprise in the 2020 Presidential Election

How Trump’s COVID diagnosis could affect the election.

After testing positive for COVID-19, President Donald Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 2, 2020. (photo credit: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES)
After testing positive for COVID-19, President Donald Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 2, 2020.
The “October Surprise,” according to Urban Dictionary, is “an unexpected, dramatic last-minute event which potentially alters the outcome of an election.” Accepting this definition at face value, the past week in America has checked all the boxes.
Since 1980, many dramatic events have happened in October. Sometimes, it was a personal scandal. In 2012, it was Hurricane Sandy. Last week – on October 2, shortly after midnight – US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Tonight, the First Lady and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”
The president’s diagnosis injected additional uncertainty into a presidential race that is already like no other in recent history, given it is being held during a deadly widespread pandemic. With former vice president Joe Biden and Trump standing as the two eldest candidates in US history – Biden is 77; Trump is 74 – the president’s diagnosis also put the spot on their running mates, and raised the question of whether the second debate could take place next week as planned.
And after the pandemic changed the way many Americans intend to cast their ballot – from an in-person vote on Election Day, to either early voting or mail-in voting – Trump’s diagnosis also raised the question of whether it would change not only how people intend to vote, but for whom they intend to choose.
This week was also an emotional roller coaster for the president’s supporters that gathered outside of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, holding signs with the words “Pray for President Trump” and “The diagnosis: Four more years at the White House.”
Ken, a retired firefighter from Howard County, Maryland, told The Jerusalem Post that he decided to come to Walter Reed to show support for the president. “I think he’s doing a great job, and I want him to know that everybody can’t wait for him to be done with this virus,” he said “I know he’s working today, but I want him to get out of this hospital and get back to the White House. This guy is a warrior.”
On Wednesday, the president’s physician released a memo saying that Trump is not experiencing symptoms and that he developed antibodies, which could indicate he is recovering from the virus. And yet, one question that remains open is what effect, if any, the past week’s events could have on the elections.
SOME EXPERTS suggested that voters have already made up their minds, and, as such, Trump’s COVID diagnosis would not change the race one way or the other. Kenneth Wald, distinguished professor emeritus of political science at The University of Florida, told the Post that, compared to 2016 – when both presidential candidates had low approval ratings – there are far fewer undecided voters in 2020.
“Moreover, a large proportion of the electorate has already cast ballots by mail,” he noted. “Hence, there are far fewer voters available to be converted than was the case four years ago. To the extent that Trump’s illness matters, I don’t imagine it will change many minds, but it will probably reinforce the preferences already reached.”
Steven S. Smith is the Kate M. Gregg distinguished professor of social sciences and a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. “The president’s illness has highlighted the failure of his administration’s effort to curtail the spread of the virus and undermined his credibility on the issue,” he said.
“The percentage of Americans favoring Biden has exceeded 50% in the polls conducted since late last week,” he added. “Plainly, Trump’s chances of winning reelection have suffered a serious blow. It is becoming very difficult for Trump to recover and beat Biden. He now must persuade both undecided voters and a few Biden voters to choose him. Success will depend on Trump gaining control over his own behavior and a stumble by Biden.”
MATT BROOKS, the executive director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, told the Post that “no one could tell with certainty that they know how the events of the last week may impact this election. The one thing that is certain about this election and trajectory is the uncertainty.”
Brooks noted that polls in some key states remain closer than the national numbers, and that the race is competitive. “You have to take all these outlier polls, the very favorable and the very negative polls with a grain of salt,” he said.
He also said he feels similar to 2016, when Trump won the election despite a majority of polls that indicated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was leading the race. “I think there’s a lot of volatility left in the coming weeks,” Brooks continued. “This has been a chaotic election and a bit of a roller coaster. And we just don’t know for sure how it’s going to come out. It’s hard to predict with certainty the outcome of any event in this environment. So ,to the extent that people are making declarations that the diagnosis had this effect or that effect, nobody really knows. My sense is – fasten your seat belts, because it’s going to be a wild ride to the finish line.”
Asked about the high numbers of infections within the White House, including diagnoses of the first lady and many senior advisers, Brooks said “it’s unfortunate, and we hate to see it, and we hope everybody has a speedy and complete recovery, but it’s no different than what we see when there’s an outbreak on a football team or a baseball team or in any kind of situation where people are working closely together and this virus rears its ugly head.”
Mark Mellman, a political strategist and CEO and president of Democratic Majority for Israel, said he does not expect the past week to change the trajectory of the election. “We love to say that something is ‘a game changer’[or] it’s ‘reshaping the election,’ and so on. The reality is this election has been pretty much consistent for a very long time,” he told the Post. “With the exception of a period around the early primaries, when Biden wasn’t polling so well, it’s been about a seven to 10 point race in Biden’s favor.”
He said that many voters made up their minds a long time ago. “People reached a fundamental judgment about Donald Trump that he was not suitable in terms of his character and temperament to be president of the United States,” Mellman said. “And what’s happened with COVID has only served to reinforce that view for a lot of people and, frankly, to cut off avenues of escape that Trump might have had.”
“Had [Trump] had a roaring economy for the last six months, maybe he could have escaped the image that people had of him,” Mellman added. “[But] his own battle with COVID put that issue back, front and center for people.”
In october of 2016, Trump was trailing in the polls, and some senior Republicans, such as then-House speaker Paul Ryan, gave him the cold shoulder following the Access Hollywood tape, yet he was able to win the elections. Could that be the case in 2020? “[In 2016] the models said Trump had a 25% chance of winning and people assumed that meant he couldn’t win,” Mellman explained. “But, 25% events do happen about one in every four times. So there’s a relatively low probability that Trump is going to win this election. But it’s still a possibility.
“Nobody should be overconfident. Nobody should be complacent in looking at November,” he continued. “But there’s no evidence that you could look at, there’s nothing that you can foresee reasonably on the horizon that’s going to change the dynamics of this election. Could something [still] happen that does change the dynamics? Yes, but it’s not something you could foresee.”