Why an October Vaccine Wouldn’t Swing the Election for Trump

President Donald Trump has promised that a safe and effective vaccine against the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 will be rolled out in October, with 100 million doses available by the end of the year. In Tuesday’s presidential debate, he reaffirmed that the vaccine was just “weeks away.” Yet this announcement contradicts the estimations of scientists, public health experts and, most recently, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Donald Trump that is standing in the grass: President Donald exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on October 1 in Washington, D.C.

© Getty/Drew Angerer
President Donald exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on October 1 in Washington, D.C.

CDC Director Robert Redfield explained to a Senate panel this month that a vaccine would be “generally available to the American public, so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life” sometime in mid- to late-2021. Trump was quick to dismiss Redfield as mistaken and “confused,” and reiterated his continued confidence in the vaccine’s rollout in the very near future.


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But how likely is that to happen, and, if it did, would it really shake up the presidential race?

The promise of an “October surprise”—that is, a late-breaking revelation so big that it could shift the results of an election—sounds enticing. The term was first used to describe the possibility that the Ronald Reagan campaign had conspired with Iran to keep American hostages from being released in time to save Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election bid.

But the reality is that very little, including a vaccine, is likely to make much of an impact in this election.

Producing a safe and effective vaccine for a disease within a year of that disease’s discovery would be unprecedented. Even if “Operation Warp Speed,” Trump’s initiative to streamline the vaccine development, approval and distribution process, is successful, the number of things that would have to go right for a vaccine to roll out successfully this year makes the goal highly unlikely. We would need to see tens of thousands people enroll in clinical trials and receive two doses of a vaccine (or a placebo) a month apart, have data that show safety and efficacy (meaning that that the vaccine prevents infection or severity of illness in at least 50 percent of participants who received the vaccine) and observe a lack of serious side effects.

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Given that none of the nine companies in Phase 3 trials have completed enrollment and all have jointly pledged to “stand with science” and not apply for licensing of any vaccine that has not been thoroughly vetted for safety and efficacy, Trump’s goal seems unrealistic.

Vaccine success depends on the willingness of millions of people to get it. This requires a good deal of public trust, both in the companies and procedures that produce it and in the government agencies that certify it. Trump, however, has poisoned that well by repeatedly undermining public trust in government agencies and processes and by seeking to politicize the vaccine.

But still, let’s say that a safe and effective vaccine is available for rollout in early October, and Trump touts it, encourages people to take it and claims it as a victory over the greatest natural crisis of his presidency. How likely is this to shake up the presidential race, and would it qualify as a real October surprise?

The bad news for the president is that even a vaccine that promises to slow the pandemic that has cost more than 200,000 lives and severely hampered the economy is not likely to make a significant difference to the election results. For one, it really wouldn’t be that much of a surprise. That is, Trump has been promising a vaccine for months. His list of campaign promises included a vow to produce a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year and “return to normal” in 2021. In many ways, a vaccine is already priced into the market.

It may be that there are some swing voters who are skeptical that a vaccine will appear this year but would be swayed toward Trump if he defeated that skepticism, but likely not many. Indeed, many voters say that a quickly produced vaccine is one that would make them more skeptical, and they’d be unlikely to have it administered. Trump’s relentless politicization of the vaccine process has already limited the impact an October vaccine would have.

Second, despite a very news-heavy year, this has been a remarkably stable presidential contest. Unlike in 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump grew to double digits and shrank to nothing multiple times throughout the year, Biden has held a very steady lead over Trump since he clinched the Democratic nomination. The major party conventions, which usually move the needle back and forth, barely budged polls this cycle. Like most presidential re-election campaigns, this one seems to be turning on people’s evaluations of the president’s first term, and there aren’t many people undecided on that or even with soft opinions on it.

Third, the whole idea of an October surprise is a bit of a canard. Yes, FBI Director James Comey’s announcement of an investigation into Clinton’s emails in late October 2016 may have been fatal to her campaign or at the very least contributed to its failure. But for the most part, we don’t learn a whole lot new about the candidates that late in the election. This is especially true in this cycle, where the candidates are the incumbent president—who has been a widely known celebrity for more than three decades—and a two-term vice president who has been in public life for half a century.

Fourth, while most Americans are certainly tired of and frightened by the pandemic, it is the dampening effect it has on the economy that has perhaps hurt Trump politically the most. A successful vaccine would mean that, eventually, schools and businesses would be able to reopen; restaurants could return to full capacity; people could flock to movie theaters and go to work in factories and office buildings; and people would resume air travel, spending tourism dollars or visiting relatives. But it would take some time for the vaccine to have a salutary effect on the economy—certainly beyond Election Day.

Finally, the election has already begun. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have expanded early voting options. Polls are already open roughly half the states and territories in one form or another. The odds of a late-breaking event in October influencing the election just becomes more and more remote as more people cast their vote.

Trump is not wrong to see the COVID-19 pandemic as the main threat to his re-election, but the idea that a rushed vaccine would get him out of hot water is based on far more hope than strategy.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning From Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020.

Jennifer Reich is professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver and author of Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.

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