The Student
Could this be Trump’s October Surpise?
by Oliver Maclean, 3/10/20

By all traditional measures, Joe Biden is favoured to win the US presidential election in November. The most recent 538 simulation puts him in the White House 77 out of 100 times. The main factor in his success so far has been events. The BLM movement has helped convince young people he is their best chance of change, but at the same time, his decision to not concede to the more radical elements of their agenda has helped to keep the moderate vote onside. The COVID crisis and economic downturn has also destroyed Trump’s original campaign message of it’s the economy stupid that had helped many moderate Republicans stick with him before the crisis.

For the Democrats this election was always going to be different from 2016 in that they are no longer the de facto incumbents, meaning that they can play traditional opposition politics. Biden’s positioning as the ‘calming candidate’, a safe pair of hands that understands American values of security, pride in the country and its institutions seems to be working.

The similarities with the way Labour Leader Keir Starmer is setting up his platform is striking. Both are basing this strategy on a belief that there is widespread appetite for quiet competence after the chaos of 2020 and the broader culture war that has dominated politics for the last few years. The polls appear to back this thesis – over two thirds of Americans say want a calmer politics. Trump’s abrasive rhetoric and questionable attitude to office has no doubt been a large factor in this.

Generally, the less the US public see of Biden, the better he polls. With the televised debates around the corner, Biden will just be keen to come out the other side without any major slip ups. After multiple infamous gaffs this year, most notably saying ‘you ain’t black’ when referring to African-Americans who didn’t vote for him, these debates could play a larger role than ever before in an election. The Trump campaign team will no doubt seek to capitalise on any further blunders.

The death of Justice Ginsburg has the potential to change the course of this election. So far, in terms of funding, the Democrats have benefited more. With over $90m raised in just over 24 hours it has defied expectations of a more riled up Republican base for which the Supreme Court is an almost sacred issue. Biden has been keen to keep the conversation on COVID and the implications for the Affordable Care Act of a Trump appointee, mainly because he knows that fighting Trump on the culture war issue surrounding a nominee has the ability to shatter his somewhat fragile voting coalition.

For Trump to get a second term, he needs to win over the suburban female vote in the key states such as Ohio, North Carolina and Florida, all of which are locations where Biden currently has a narrow poll lead. Polling currently suggests that the US public wants to wait until after the election to confirm a nominee to the Court. The best chance the Trump campaign has of winning is to propose a female candidate that his target voter can relate to and make them the figurehead of the campaign. 

This would divert attention from his COVID failings onto a culture war issue that could help close the gap in areas where he narrowly trails Biden. This strategy could work even better if they try and force through a candidate at high speed and narrowly miss out because of lack of time. The Trump platform could then be almost entirely based on that candidate and dominate the airwaves, distracting from his failings in office.

With Biden only holding narrow poll leads in many of the battleground states, there is still the potential for an October surprise, possibly around the vacant court seat, that could significantly change the dynamic of the election.

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr