President Trump started the fall campaign by researching and trying to orchestrate a last-minute surprise that would put him past Joseph R. Biden Jr.
A vaccine against the coronavirus. A spectacular economic rebound. A successful investigation by the Ministry of Justice. A serious misstep from a rival he described as hesitant. A scandal involving Mr. Biden and his son Hunter.
But as the campaign draws to a close and most national and state battlefield polls show Mr. Trump in trouble, the October surprise cavalry that helped him overtake Hillary Clinton in 2016 did not happen.
It left Mr. Trump running with an uncontrollable pandemic record, an economy staged by disease, and questions about his own style and conduct that made him a polarizing figure.
Certain events that have crossed the political landscape have given Mr. Trump’s political circle hope for a lift: an opening on the Supreme Court, street protests the president has sought to blame on Democrats and even his three-day hospitalization with the coronavirus, which some advisers had hoped could make him more empathetic.
None of this seems to have made a difference. In fact, the back-and-forth nature of what appeared to be earthly moments underscored the central and fundamentally stable dynamics of the race. Opinions on Mr. Trump are largely fixed.
More than anything, the race was defined by the pandemic that exploded into public consciousness in March and which Mr. Trump struggled to deal with as both a health issue and a political issue.
The country saw a new peak in daily infections – nearly 100,000 on Friday – as infections have surged especially in the Midwest. “The state is on the verge of running out of intensive care beds,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel banner warned Friday on the eve of Mr. Trump’s visit to the battlefield state of Wisconsin. The spiral of bad news regarding the pandemic overwhelmed a glimmer of good economic news for the White House: a record increase in economic growth in the third quarter.
“The October surprise came in March,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who handled the 2008 presidential candidacy for Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is now one of the Mr. Trump’s lawyers.
Jennifer Palmieri, Ms. Clinton’s 2016 senior advisor, said that “the underlying factors of life in America right now are so dramatic in themselves” that the idea that the race could be transformed by some event. topicality, as happened with Ms. Clinton in 2016, had always seemed like a shot from afar.
Keep up with Election 2020
“A pandemic, an economic slowdown,” she said. “People decided a long time ago which side they were on. In the end, October is not surprising. Not this year.”
Mr. Trump can always win on his own. He could repeat his 2016 electoral college victory by turning into white blue-collar workers who usually don’t vote in large numbers. and that many pollsters underestimated last time. But the obstacle is higher. This unlikely victory was the result not only of his resounding appeal to Americans alienated from the political establishment, but also of events that rocked the final weeks of the campaign.
But Mr. Biden is not Mrs. Clinton. She lacked a reservoir of goodwill to help her weather the damaging rush of news of the past few weeks – in particular, the last-minute investigation into her emails by James B. Comey, the FBI Director.
In contrast, Mr Trump survived even after the release of an audiotape – in October, of course – in which he was heard bragging about how he grabbed women by the genitals without their consent. While the 2016 polls showed that many voters chose between two candidates they didn’t like, this time around Mr. Biden is viewed favorably in many battlefield states.
There is a history of developments in October (or September) that upset a candidate’s best planning. Sometimes events that are beyond the control of either party occur, such as the last-minute broadcast of a video message from Osama bin Laden in 2004. It has been widely seen as a blow. a late thumbs-up to President George W. Bush, who anchored his campaign against John F. Kerry with warnings of a potential resumption of the 9/11 attacks.
But it’s often a campaign that drops negative information about an opponent that comes in when voters are paying the most attention. In mid-October, the New York Post ran an article suggesting improper foreign business transactions by Hunter Biden, based on questionable information provided by Mr. Giuliani allegedly taken from a computer hard drive – which , according to Mr. Giuliani, belonged to the younger Mr. Biden – who had been left in a Delaware repair shop. The article caught the attention of the conservative news media, but did not appear to change the race.
Some politicians wonder if the days of the October surprise are over as they watch events unfold that would have changed the course of another election – the allegations about Hunter Biden or the fight against the Supreme Court.
“The now instant availability of information to test the credibility of claims decreases the likelihood that they will be launched and increases the likelihood that they can be turned against them,” said Tim Pawlenty, former Republican governor of Minnesota, who s ‘is presented for the presidential nomination of his party in 2012.
The two biggest external shocks to the race were the death of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the President’s hospitalization with the coronavirus in early October. Mr Trump defied the Democratic opposition by insisting on a confirmation vote ahead of election day for Justice Ginsburg’s successor, Amy Coney Barrett. But it turned out to be a less electric battle than both sides anticipated, and there is little evidence that it changed the dynamics of the presidential race.
Mr. Trump’s fight with Covid-19, rather than rallying Americans around him, crystallized the dangers of his laissez-faire approach to health guidelines and the virus’s centrality in American life.
“It’s easy to see how this election could have gone differently if the president’s behavior and policies had been different,” said David Wasserman, editor of the Cook Political Report. “But exogenous events – the Supreme Court vacancy bombs and Trump’s illness – have done little to change the course of the race. If anything, they helped Biden slightly. “
Ms Clinton has long argued that Mr Comey’s letter announcing the reopening of the email investigation was a major factor in her downfall. “The main reason we ended up not winning these three states” – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – “that we thought we were going to win was Comey’s letter,” Clinton told The New York Times for a podcast recent. “Because we could literally trace what happened before and after.”
For months, Democrats have worried that Mr. Trump could face a tough re-election battle to create a game-changing moment, given his political history, which includes sending troops to the border. in the days leading up to the 2018 midterm and being indicted for soliciting damaging information from a foreign government about Mr. Biden.
But most of what Mr. Trump tried to do to shake up the race didn’t seem to be working.
A Justice Department investigation he has requested into the role of the Obama administration in examining its ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign will not be completed on election day. The federal government is nowhere near approving a vaccine. There was no big stimulus package for the fall. And a long-awaited report commissioned by Senate Republicans into corruption allegations against Mr Biden found no evidence of influence or wrongdoing on the part of the former vice president.
That’s not to say that Mr. Trump hasn’t tried to use government levers to shake up the race, and he has lambasted Cabinet officials who were unwilling to make his offer.
He complained that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to post emails from Ms Clinton that he said exposed Democratic abuse intended to derail his 2016 campaign. He said Attorney General William P Barr would come off “as a very sad and sad situation” for not indicting Democrats like Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama.
As Mr. Trump travels the country, he complains at almost every rally that the news media did not pay enough attention to his allegations against Hunter Biden. “Why isn’t Twitter following Biden’s corruption trend? It is the most important and most credible story in the world. Fake Trending !!! ” he wrote October 28.
His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, recently took to the back of Air Force One to ask reporters following Mr. Trump on the election campaign to watch Tucker Carlson interview Tony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Hunter Biden.
But even some members of Mr. Trump’s own party have ignored Mr. Trump’s claims regarding the accusations against Hunter Biden, which have been largely confined to Fox News and other conservative media. “I don’t think that moves a single voter,” Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican whose own family was criticized by Mr. Trump in the 2016 primaries, told Axios.
Of course, some fear there will be a surprise in November. Democrats, even as they see encouraging polls, fear Mr. Trump and Republicans could overthrow the election through crackdown tactics and court challenges that end in the Supreme Court..
Still, Mr DuHaime said conditions in 2020 set the bar high for a repeat of the external events that helped lift Mr Trump at the end of 2016, which included not only Comey’s letter but also the flood. damaging emails stolen by Russia and published by WikiLeaks. And Mr. Biden, unlike Ms. Clinton, has not spent 25 years as a target of Conservative attacks.
“People are not suddenly going to believe that you are corrupt two weeks before the election,” he said.
Annie Karni contributed reporting.