President Trump began the fall campaign rooting for, and trying to orchestrate, a last-minute surprise that would vault him ahead of Joseph R. Biden Jr.
A coronavirus vaccine. A dramatic economic rebound. A blockbuster Justice Department investigation. A grievous misstep by a rival he portrayed as faltering. A scandal involving Mr. Biden and his son Hunter.
But as the campaign nears an end, and with most national and battleground-state polls showing Mr. Trump struggling, the cavalry of an October surprise that helped him overtake Hillary Clinton in 2016 has not arrived.
That has left Mr. Trump running on a record of an out-of-control pandemic, an economy staggered by disease, and questions about his own style and conduct that have made him a polarizing figure.
Some events that flashed across the political landscape gave Mr. Trump’s political circle hope for a lift: an opening on the Supreme Court, street protests that the president sought to blame on Democrats and even his three-day hospitalization with the coronavirus, which some advisers had hoped might make him more empathetic.
None of it appears to have made a difference. If anything, the come-and-go nature of what seemed like earth-moving moments underlined the central and fundamentally stable dynamics of the race. Opinions about Mr. Trump are largely set.
More than anything, the race was defined by the pandemic that exploded into the public consciousness in March and that Mr. Trump has struggled to manage as both a health care and a political issue.
The nation experienced a new spike in daily infections — almost 100,000 on Friday — as infections jumped in particular across the Midwest. “State nears shortage of ICU beds,” the banner headline in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel warned on the eve of Mr. Trump’s visit to the battleground state of Wisconsin on Friday. The spiraling of bad news about the pandemic overwhelmed a glimmer of good economic news for the White House: a record increase in third-quarter economic growth.
“The October surprise happened in March,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who managed the 2008 presidential bid for Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is now one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers.
Jennifer Palmieri, a top adviser to Mrs. Clinton in 2016, said that “the underlying factors of life in America right now are so dramatic in and of themselves” that the idea that the race could be transformed by a news event, as happened with Mrs. Clinton in 2016, had always seemed like a long shot.
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“A pandemic, an economic downturn,” she said. “People decided a long time ago which side they were on. In the end, October was not surprising. Not this year.”
Mr. Trump can still win on his own. He could repeat his 2016 Electoral College victory by turning out white blue-collar supporters who typically do not vote in large numbers and whom many pollsters undercounted last time. But the hurdle is higher. That improbable victory was the result of not only his resonant 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 did not have a reservoir of good will to help her overcome the rush of damaging news in the final weeks — in particular, the last-minute on-again, off-again investigation of her emails by James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I.
By contrast, Mr. Trump survived even after the release of an audiotape — in October, of course — in which he was heard boasting of how he had grabbed women by the genitals without their consent. While polls in 2016 showed that many voters were choosing between two candidates they did not like, this time around, Mr. Biden is viewed favorably in many battleground states.
There is a history of October (or September) developments that upend the best planning of a candidate. Sometimes events happen that are beyond the control of either side, such as the last-minute release of a video message by Osama bin Laden in 2004. It was widely seen as giving a late boost to President George W. Bush, who had anchored his campaign against John F. Kerry with warnings about a potential reprise of the attacks of Sept. 11.
But often it is a campaign dropping negative information about an opponent that is timed to occur when voters are paying the most attention. In mid-October, The New York Post published an article suggesting improper foreign business dealings by Hunter Biden, based on questionable information provided by Mr. Giuliani reportedly from a computer hard drive — which Mr. Giuliani claimed belonged to the younger Mr. Biden — that had been left at a Delaware repair shop. The article captured attention in the conservative news media but didn’t appear to alter the race.
Some politicians wonder if the days of the October surprise are gone as they watch events slide by that would have changed the course of another election — the allegations about Hunter Biden or the Supreme Court fight.
“The now instant availability of information to test the credibility of claims decreases the likelihood they will be launched and increases the likelihood they could backfire,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota, who ran for his party’s presidential nomination in 2012.
The two biggest external shocks to the race were the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the president’s hospitalization with the coronavirus in early October. Mr. Trump defied Democratic opposition in insisting on a confirmation vote before Election Day for Justice Ginsburg’s successor, Amy Coney Barrett. But it turned out to be a less electric battle than either side had expected, and there is little evidence it changed the dynamics of the presidential race.
Mr. Trump’s bout with Covid-19, rather than rallying Americans around him, crystallized the dangers of his laissez-faire approach to health guidelines and the centrality of the virus to American life.
“It’s easy to see how this election could have played out differently if the president’s behavior and policies had been different,” said David Wasserman, an editor at The Cook Political Report. “But the exogenous events — the bombshells of the Supreme Court vacancy and Trump’s illness — didn’t do much to alter the trajectory of the race. If anything, they marginally helped Biden. “
Mrs. Clinton has long argued that Mr. Comey’s letter announcing that he was reopening the email investigation was a major factor in her loss. “The principal reason why we ended up not winning those three states” — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — “that we thought we were going to win was the Comey letter,” Mrs. Clinton told The New York Times for a recent podcast. “Because we could literally chart what happened from before and after.”
For months, Democrats have worried what Mr. Trump might do in the face of a tough re-election battle to gin up a game-changing moment, given his political history, which includes sending troops to the border in the days before the 2018 midterms and being impeached for soliciting damaging information from a foreign government on Mr. Biden.
But most of what Mr. Trump attempted to do to shake up the race did not appear to work.
A Justice Department investigation he sought of the Obama administration’s role in examining his ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign will not be completed by Election Day. The federal government is not close to approving a vaccine. There was no big fall stimulus package. And a much-anticipated report ordered up by Senate Republicans into corruption allegations against Mr. Biden found no evidence of improper influence or wrongdoing by the former vice president.
That is not to say Mr. Trump did not try to use the levers of the government to shake up the race, and he has lashed out at Cabinet officials who would not do his bidding.
He complained that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had not released emails from Mrs. Clinton that he said would reveal Democratic abuses intended to derail his 2016 campaign. He said that Attorney General William P. Barr would go down “as a very sad, sad situation” for failing to indict Democrats like Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama.
As Mr. Trump travels the country, he complains at nearly every rally that the news media has not paid enough attention to his allegations against Hunter Biden. “Why isn’t Twitter trending Biden corruption? It’s the biggest, and most credible, story anywhere in the world. Fake Trending!!!” he wrote on Oct. 28.
His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, walked to the back of Air Force One on a recent night to ask reporters following Mr. Trump on the campaign trail 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 shrugged off Mr. Trump’s assertions about the accusations against Hunter Biden, which have largely been confined to Fox News and other conservative outlets. “I don’t think it moves a single voter,” Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican whose own family was maligned by Mr. Trump during the 2016 primaries, told Axios.
Of course, some fear there could be a November surprise. Democrats, even as they view encouraging polls, worry that Mr. Trump and the Republicans could upend the election through suppression tactics and legal challenges that wind up before the Supreme Court.
Still, Mr. DuHaime said the conditions in 2020 set a high bar for a repeat of the external events that helped lift Mr. Trump late in 2016, which included not only the Comey letter but the damaging flood of emails stolen by Russia and released by WikiLeaks. And Mr. Biden, unlike Mrs. Clinton, has not spent 25 years as the target of conservative attacks.
“People aren’t suddenly going to believe you’re corrupt two weeks before the election,” he said.
Annie Karni contributed reporting.