The concept of the "October Surprise" constitutes an integral part of the US political vocabulary during the US presidential election years. This term usually refers to the occurrence of an internal or foreign policy event only weeks before Americans go to the polls in early November, which may affect the election result. The presidential elections in November 2020 entail higher risks in case of such an event, given the severe political polarisation in the US. The presence of a small number of undecided voters in swing states is likely to determine the final outcome of the election. It is also likely that the decision of those swing voters will come in response to their automatic reactions to last-minute developments.
The Trump administration crisis
The Trump presidency has already strived to change many norms in US politics. Trump describes himself as a "disruptive factor" for the political establishment, bent on regime change. Within this political context, the coronavirus pandemic turned into an event that began to change the paradigm since February 2020, serving to increase the level of the President’s frustration. The systemic mismanagement of the pandemic, combined with the economic downturn, have added to Trump's discontent. During his term, the US economy, which was enjoying prosperity, entered into a state of sudden recession, and unemployment reached high double-digit rates (from 3.5 percent to nearly 15 percent in May 2020). The gross domestic product (GDP) also declined by nearly 30 percent, a ratio that had not been seen even during the Great Recession of 1929.
The incumbent president – who is erratic and impulsive – has begun to show signs of insecurity under the circumstances. Opinion polls suggest that Democrats would vote by mail more than Republicans. President Trump has already referred to delaying the presidential election based on the flimsy argument that voting by mail could be fraught with fraud. Perhaps even worse, President Trump claimed during the (electoral) Republican Convention that the only way Democrats could win is by rigging the elections. "The only way they can take these elections from us is if this is a rigged election", he told delegates of the Republican Party in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Finally, there is increasing speculation about whether President Trump will accept the election results and admit defeat or not! He has already claimed that China and Russia will tamper with the votes. Perhaps shockingly, Trump has so far refused to say publicly that he will accept the election result. All these matters pave the way for historic and complicated elections in November 2020. There is no doubt that a surprise in October could affect the final result in one way or another.
The October Surprise scenarios
There are four different cases about the "October Surprise" scenarios. The first and second scenarios are based on the occurrence of an emergency in the field of foreign policy that has strong implications in the field of US national security. The third and fourth scenarios are related to domestic policy, but they are not interconnected. In other words, they may occur simultaneously.
First scenario: Iranian provocation
There is no doubt that the series of explosions in Iran during the summer months of 2020 in nuclear research facilities, facilities for the manufacture of centrifuges, facilities for the production of missiles and a shipyard were not coincidental. Reliable reports indicate that those incidents were the result of covert operations by the US CIA-Israeli Mossad.
In light of the weak Iranian response to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, the US assumption was that Tehran is not prepared to respond or escalate the situation. This was mainly due to its lack of the capacity and political will to do so in the face of a Trump administration that is ready to respond forcefully. However, there are other considerations for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that time is essential because in the event that Trump loses the election, the Biden administration would not give him the green light to carry out covert operations or launch military action, as is the case with the Trump administration. In the event of a possible victory for Biden, there may be less space to intimidate Iran, which is getting bolder and expects a new diplomatic breakthrough in 2021. In the context of this scenario, the Iranian Islamic regime would boast that it has succeeded in withstanding the "maximum pressure" campaign practised by the Trump administration, and gets bolder. All this explains why Israel and some hawks in Washington are convinced that now is the time to carry out covert coercive actions.
However, this is a risky strategy because it is based on the false assumption that Iran would not respond and that US deterrence is in place. The fact is that Iran did respond and may continue to do so with limited effectiveness. The missile attacks by Iran's proxies in Iraq led to the killing of two US and one British soldiers in March 2020. Iran has also launched a military satellite and tried to launch a cyberattack on the Israeli water infrastructure in April 2020. This led Israel to launch a counterattack on an Iranian port in May 2020. Therefore, the US-Israeli assumption that Iran would not respond is fraught with risks, and it would become difficult to control the escalation spiral once it breaks out.
In fact, in light of this possible scenario of the October Surprise centered on Iran, the calculations of the Islamic regime may be that the best time to respond to Washington may be before the US elections in order to embarrass Trump who faces a huge challenge at home in order to get re-elected. In the context of this scenario, Tehran may be involved in some hostage-taking operations of US Navy personnel in the Arabian Gulf, or in taking measures against one of Washington's allies in the region. However, the same scenario holds the risk of things turning against Iran. The Trump administration may be the one using Iranian provocations to start a short but ruthless air campaign against Iran. Therefore, any Iranian provocation could turn into an October Surprise on Trump's part. Miscalculations and unintended consequences in the Arabian Gulf may constitute a justification for both sides to go to war.
It is possible that the Trump administration’s resort to the United Nations (UN) in August 2020 to extend the arms embargo on Iran, and the possibility of promptly re-imposing sanctions on Tehran – while fully aware that this diplomatic effort would be futile – were part of the strategy to pave the way for military action. Had the UN Security Council (UNSC) sought to extend the arms embargo imposed on Iran indefinitely, as the Trump administration wanted, such an outcome would have marked the end of the nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) and Tehran's formal announcement of its withdrawal from the agreement.
The question that poses itself is the following: what would happen if the US takes military action and strikes all Iranian military sites in response to any provocation on the part of Tehran? Perhaps the scenario of a Trump entering the elections through a quick "victory" against Iran or of a president who fought a war might serve to stir up American national feelings within the US at a time when morale is at rock bottom. In any case, when things do not look good for President Trump due to the coronavirus pandemic and the weak economy, a limited US war against Iran – several air strikes against nuclear and military facilities coupled with a crushing cyberattack that cripples Iran's economic and military capabilities – may constitute a "quick" victory just before the November 2020 elections.
Second scenario: Chinese escalation
US-China relations have reached their lowest level since the late US President Richard Nixon's historic opening to China in 1979. Reports indicated that Henry Kissinger, the man who was in charge of the US strategy on China during the Nixon era, is deeply concerned about the rapid deterioration and the risk of uncontrollable events.
Most opinion polls indicate that the US public opinion has greatly hardened towards China due to the coronavirus pandemic. There is also a consensus among Republicans and Democrats that engagement with China during the terms of previous administrations has failed. Beijing's recent policy of hard-line assertiveness in regional and domestic affairs increases the likelihood of a confrontation between the US and China. Under such circumstances, the occurrence of a military incident in the South China Sea could turn into an October Surprise with major repercussions. The Economist magazine has predicted that such a scenario could occur in the South China Sea since the beginning of 2019. Others, such as historian and analyst Robert Kegan, who is affiliated with the neoconservatives, are more concerned about China's action against Taiwan. Therefore, the risks of a Sino-US confrontation are on the rise.
The question that arises is: who would benefit from a confrontation? China clearly prefers to do business with the Biden administration after the tough four years of the Trump era. So, Chinese President Xi Jinping could be assumed to be leaning towards a scenario that helps Biden win. Perhaps an attempt by China to impose a fait accompli in October 2020 – for example ending Hong Kong’s autonomy would be an easy target – would provoke and embarrass President Trump in the event that Washington refrains from taking any action.
The other alternative is for Beijing to take action against Taiwan, although such a move carries greater risks compared to the extension of full sovereignty over Hong Kong. Nevertheless, the unification of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland constitutes an ultimate strategic goal for Beijing. The current tough and daring Chinese leadership, led by expansionist President Xi Jinping, may decide to test Trump's assertiveness and bet that he would not risk a major war with China over Taiwan ahead of the US elections.
Other similar scenarios that are often discussed in the context of the Sino-US crisis include an escalation in the South China Sea in which this heavily contested maritime region, with its islands, fisheries, energy resources, military bases and trade routes, could witness a maritime confrontation. The aggressive rhetoric between the US and China regarding that region has intensified in recent months. Moreover, in a rare move, the US Navy sent two aircraft carriers to conduct freedom of navigation operations and exercises in the region in July 2020, while Beijing regularly conducts small-scale military exercises there.
The Trump administration’s political rhetoric has hardened considerably in recent months, with five members of his administration giving fiery speeches referring to a new cold war and a major economic divergence between the two countries. Besides the regional hard-line reaction by Beijing, there is now a great risk of an unintended collision between the two countries in the South China Sea. Therefore, the October Surprise includes an escalating confrontation in the South China Sea. To be clear, neither side is eager for the eruption of a major war. China believes that the battle for the South China Sea could be peacefully "won" by long-term attrition of the other side. President Trump has shown little desire for a military confrontation with China. However, there continues to be a grave risk that in the event of a confrontation, neither side would be inclined to back down.
The important difference between the October Surprise which focuses on China compared to that which focuses on Iran is that it would be nearly impossible for the Trump administration to declare a "quick win" in the first case. This would make the confrontation with China much less attractive in terms of electoral benefits. On the contrary, the risk of escalation with China would immediately affect the US stock market and make the already negative US economic outlook darker. These potentially negative dynamics for the Trump administration could make this confrontation attractive for Beijing. It is clear that the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping would prefer to see the defeat of Trump and the victory of Biden in the elections. That is why, given the October Surprise that centres on China, the dynamics of the confrontation would not be in Trump's favour.
Third scenario: a shortcut to developing an anti-coronavirus vaccine
The coronavirus epidemic is the primary issue of US politics at the moment. Nothing could help the Trump administration more than finding a solution to this dilemma in the form of developing a vaccine approved by the country's legitimate medical authorities. After his administration's failure to deal with the epidemic in the early stage of its outbreak, President Trump now appears determined to compensate for that failure by taking the problem seriously as he still lags behind the Democratic candidate in opinion polls. But is developing a vaccine realistic in the near term?
Most medical experts agree that the time it takes to develop an effective vaccine is usually determined in years. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), puts forth an optimistic timeline with a target date in this regard of early 2021. However, for some pathogens, such as HIV, the vaccine has proven elusive after decades. President Donald Trump is determined not to wait that long, and is expected to announce a quick victory on the vaccine development front before the November 2020 elections. His government is spending more than 13 billion dollars towards this goal, and is pursuing a bold strategy to achieve it.
In this scenario of the October Surprise, President Trump would use the data emerging from the vaccine trials and speed up the approval process. For political purposes, instead of relying on the necessary scientific evidence, the White House would announce that the vaccine is within reach. The next step would be to push the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA, USFDA) to grant a licence to use the vaccine in emergency situations (EUA). The trick in this October Surprise scenario would be for President Trump to hold a major press conference and announce that the vaccine is ready for marketing by the end of 2020, while obtaining a licence to administer the vaccine in emergency situations. Therefore, Trump would declare victory over the epidemic and provoke the Biden camp to respond to the licence given by the USFDA to use the vaccine in emergency situations.
Trump would use the final weeks of his election campaign to propagate the view that the Biden administration does not want to produce a vaccine because it is unpatriotic and fears losing the election. Trump would announce that Biden is playing a political game and favours his personal political ambitions to the health of the country and the citizen, and that if he becomes president, he would delay the launch of the vaccine for months. This scenario could certainly work for some hesitant voters anxious for a return to normal life.
Fourth scenario: escalation of unrest, chaos and terrorism
It is no secret that President Trump is leading a "law and order" campaign against his democratic political opponents, and seeks to portray Biden as an agent of a radical leftist agenda that would create chaos and violence on US streets. He claims that Biden wants to stop funding the police forces and empower "terrorist" organisations such as the "Antifa" movement. President Trump believes that the country is dominated by a host of professional anarchists, violent gangs, arsonists, thieves, criminals, rioters, the Antifa movement, and others. He said: We are now aware of the organisers of “domestic terror” and “this includes . . . others who are leading the instigators of this violence”. One of Trump's top counselors and outgoing strategist Kellyanne Conway already told Fox News in this regard that “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order”.
Under these circumstances, the October Surprise that would surely help President Trump – and seriously weaken the Biden camp – would be a rapid escalation of violence in urban centres and swing states, such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, by responding to another incident in which an African American man would be killed at the hands of the police, and the eruption of large protests and riots across US cities, similar to the protests that took place after the killing of George Floyd in late May 2020. Only this time, however, the scale of the protests would be much greater and there would be a greater propensity for violence.
President Trump may use this scenario as an opportunity to deploy the National Guard, federal agents and, in some cases, army forces. He would base his hope and strategy on escalating protests and acts of violence, and would greatly benefit from the protesters’ violence. Thus, he would fuel unrest and exploit the anger of his popular base. His ultimate goal in this regard would be to push Biden to support the protesters, while the silent majority, fearful of chaos and unrest, would side with the incumbent president. As in the previous strategy that includes rapidly developing a vaccine for the coronavirus pandemic, the key to this Trump strategy would be to provoke Biden's camp to take a position that would facilitate Trump’s portrayal of the Democrats as enemies of public safety and public order in the country.
Would the US face a "November Surprise"?
The US is entering the final phase of the presidential election season at a time when the country is going through three major crises: a massive health dilemma, a major economic downturn, and social unrest on a racial basis. Under normal circumstances, one of those crises would be enough to turn the election result against the incumbent US president. Nevertheless, after having fallen behind his Democratic rival, President Trump is now recording a convergence in opinion poll results with the Democratic candidate in nearly all swing states.
In an environment where voter turnout is extremely critical, it would be tempting for the Trump camp to find ways to influence undecided voters in order to lure them into the "law and order" camp. In addition to the rapid pursuit of developing a vaccine against the coronavirus pandemic, which could provide the long-awaited solution to the epidemic, the third and fourth scenarios for the October Surprise would certainly help the White House. As for foreign policy, while a confrontation with Iran may also create some momentum for Trump's nationalist base, any confrontation with China is likely to be fraught with great risks for the US economy.
Finally, after those October Surprise scenarios, the US may also face an unprecedented "November Surprise" if President Trump decides to object to Biden’s victory in the election on the pretext of massive mail fraud. In this scenario, the White House would refer the election results to the Supreme Court or state courts. Meanwhile, President Trump is likely to rally his grassroots base with tweets asking them to "prevent the Democrats from stealing the elections" by taking to the streets, and US politics may soon enter into massive turmoil.
EPC | 18 Nov 2020
Shereen Mohammed | 25 Oct 2020
EPC | 19 Oct 2020