Tariffs imposed on Chinese goods by the US in 2018 marked the beginning of Donald Trump's trade war between the world's two largest economies. Joe Biden's policy has been more of the same. Image: iStock

As the US election approaches, political pundits worldwide have begun to speculate on an “October Surprise” ahead of the November 3 vote.

In American politics, an October Surprise is an intentionally crafted and timely maneuvered media event to attract or distract the voters and influence an election result, particularly for the US presidential race.

As the quadrennial US presidential election date is always in early November; the media stunts are usually planned for late October. The last-minute attempts likely have a massive impact on the political choice of the American electorates. These kinds of last-minute media maneuvers can alter the course of the election.

William Casey coined the term “October Surprise” when he was the election campaign manager for Ronald Reagan. Reagan successfully won the US nomination from the Republican Party for the 1980 race with the help of a “Surprise,” that this article will deal with later.

Although the coining of the term is quite recent, the phenomenon itself goes long back in American political history. However, here are few cases of how an October Surprise reversed opinion polls and the final outcome in a US presidential election.

In 1972, Republican president Richard Nixon was bidding for re-election amid the Vietnam War. Democratic senator George McGovern was running for the presidency with an anti-war electoral agenda. He was ahead of Nixon in opinion polls. On October 26, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, announced the Surprise as “peace being at hand” in Vietnam.

Consequently, the Nixon election rallies were full of the placards on the end of the war. In reality, peace was not at anyone’s hand, but Nixon was re-elected in a landslide despite his opponent being ahead of him in pre-election opinion polls. McGovern called Kissinger’s announcement “a cruel political deception.”

Similarly, in 1980 the central election issue was the hostage crisis in Iran. That country’s regime took 52 Americans hostage from the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. Republican presidential contender Reagan attacked his Democratic opponent Jimmy Carter as a weak president by pointing to the hostages’ continued captivity. As the election date approached, Iran halted the negotiations with the Carter administration.

According to an account by Gary Sick, the former Iran specialist on Carter’s national-security team, Iranian prime minister Mohammad-Ali Rajai unexpectedly announced that Iran would not release the hostages while Carter was in the White House. As a result, Reagan won the 1980 election by a considerable margin. Iran freed the hostages on the day Reagan was inaugurated in exchange for the release of about US$3 billion in Iranian assets held under sanctions.

The most recent October Surprise was perhaps the letter sent to the US Congress on October 28, 2016, by James Comey, then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Despite having closed its investigation in July into the allegation that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state during 2009-2013, Comey sent a dubious letter that the FBI had found new e-mails that might or might not be important to the probe into the e-mail scandal.

The Surprise sent tremors through the election campaign. Voters’ attention was distracted by the portrayal of Clinton as corrupt, a crook, and a traitor by her opponent Donald Trump. Before the Surprise, Clinton had been leading her opponent by a 4-percentage-point margin, as 48% of voters supported her, and only 44% favored Trump. However, Trump won the election, in the ultimate Surprise.

What will be Trump’s October Surprise in 2020? Several may be in the offing.

For instance, Washington Post columnist Max Boot said that on the domestic front, Trump could announce a plan to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. It can easily be guessed that Trump will approve a vaccine before the end of Phase 3 trials and without following the necessary procedure for the vaccine’s final approval. He will not hesitate to make innocent American people scapegoats for his re-election bid by forcing them to take an inconclusive vaccine that might have dangerous side effects.

As Boot also suggested, on the foreign-policy front, Trump could announce the withdrawal of 26,000 US troops from Germany. Boot also surmised that Trump could order the removal of 8,000 US troops from Afghanistan. Similarly, he could announce complete or partial troop withdrawals from South Korea.

Political commentators are also guessing that Trump could try to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which he pulled the US out of on May 8, 2018. Or he could order an air strike against Iran over its allegedly expanding nuclear program.

Some political pundits project that Trump could declare a complete divorce from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an October Surprise. In The New York Times, Michael Crowley cites the book recently published by Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, in which he claimed that Trump repeatedly said he wanted to quit the NATO alliance. According to Crowley, Bolton estimated that Trump could announce shortly before voting day a US pullout from NATO as his October Surprise.

In private e-mails to this author, many American and Indian-diaspora scholars have expressed concerns that Trump will attack China over the South China Sea row as an October Surprise to win re-election. As a result, there will be disruption in world peace and stability. Their anxiety might be justified.

Nevertheless, the author has a different guesstimate on Trump’s 2020 October Surprise on his mind. In my opinion, there is a strong likelihood that Trump will announce a trade deal with China.

It has become evident that anti-China rhetoric has failed to attract American voters. Trump is aware that voters want results, not a verbal war against China. Trump’s son Donald Jr’s rhetoric on “Beijing Biden” is a weak attempt to attract votes. Trump also knows that up to now, his anti-China rhetoric has been just lip service, while the American people want workable solutions.

The US-China trade talks on a Phase 1 agreement on August 24 underpin this argument.

Trump is more likely to sign a trade deal on the condition that China imports $200 billion worth of US goods annually and buys about 7,500 aircraft worth $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. In exchange, the US will allow Chinese technology companies to purchase American companies’ products and open the US for Chinese technology companies to do business instead of invading the South China Sea as the October Surprise.

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.