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Trump's COVID 'October surprise' might make him a better candidate — and person

Well, a lot of us were wondering if we’d see an “October Surprise” from either the Trump or Biden camps. Having the president and first lady test positive for the coronavirus wasn’t on my list of possibilities, but here we are. We certainly wish President Trump and Melania an easy and speedy recovery.

No one knows how this will play out over the next month; there are way too many variables. But let’s assume – as well as hope – that Trump recovers quickly with no debilitating after-effects, which the vast majority of people do, even seniors.

The president’s many critics will claim that it underscores their narrative that he refused to take the coronavirus seriously. But that’s ridiculous. Left-leaning politicians, including the Democratic governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, and his wife recently tested positive, as did the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauTrudeau: Canada preparing for potential 'disruptions' after US election Trump's COVID 'October surprise' might make him a better candidate — and person 'Get well' messages pour in from foreign capitals after Trump positive coronavirus test MORE, who never contracted the disease himself but self-quarantined.

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As health experts continuously remind us, anyone can contract COVID-19, even those who take great precautions.

Self-isolating for up to two weeks could hurt Trump’s campaign, since his personal appearance at rallies energizes both Trump and his supporters.

On the other hand, there may be a “sympathy vote” that helps him. Were I managing Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE’s campaign, this would be my biggest fear. 

The sympathy vote appears to be real, though short lived. Amy Jasperson, a political-science professor at Rhodes College who has written about the sympathy vote, told The Atlantic in 2014. There can be an outpouring of sympathy for a politician, especially when someone close to the candidate dies. But that sympathy doesn’t typically last long and may not be strong enough to propel an underdog to victory.

It appears that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw a bump in his popularity after announcing in late March that he had tested positive or Covid-19 and then entered the hospital.

However, Johnson’s popularity peaked in mid-April at about 66 percent and was back to the mid-40s by June, according to YouGov polling. But some now question whether that increase was a result of contracting the disease.

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Apart from the sympathy vote, if Trump recovers quickly and hits the campaign trail hard, it may reinforce something that many of his close advisers have said repeatedly: the man is remarkably energetic, especially given his 74 years. 

People close to Trump have told me that they have trouble keeping up with him, that he can run circles around many people half his age. I don’t know how he does it.

If people are concerned about “Sleepy Joe’s” energy and ability to perform, a vibrant Trump, post-recovery, might change a few minds. 

But here is where I think a positive COVID-19 test and quick and successful recovery could really help Trump: humility.

Trump can boast of a tremendous economic record — and he often does.

But people who face a threatening disease and overcome it often have a sense that they have been given a divine reprieve — a second chance.

That experience can be humbling, even to self-confident overachievers. It can take the edge off a person. And if there is anything that most of Trump’s supporters say they would like to see changed, it’s rounding off his sharper edges. 

A recovered and reenergized Trump, who has been confronted with the fragility of life and health, might emerge as not just a strong leader, but a more likable one. That’s a candidate who would be hard to beat.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.