Andres Oppenheimer

Here’s how Trump can win

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Ohio University Eastern Campus in St. Clairsville, Ohio, Tuesday, June 28, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Ohio University Eastern Campus in St. Clairsville, Ohio, Tuesday, June 28, 2016. AP

Here's what Hillary Clinton should fear the most about the upcoming U.S. elections: a terrorist attack like the recent Orlando massacre shortly before the Nov. 8 election, which could sway the vote in Donald Trump’s favor.

Granted, the latest Fox News poll shows that presumptive Democratic candidate Clinton is beating Trump by a comfortable 6 percentage points. And election forecasting whiz Nate Silver has just written in his website FiveThirtyEight that Trump's chances of winning in November are about 20 percent, which is pretty much what oddsmakers are saying.

But I'm afraid those numbers won't mean much if a new terrorist incident shakes the country in the final stretch of the campaign and Trump turns on his demagogic anti-Muslim rhetoric, as he has in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in Orlando, Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino.

In the wake of the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Trump called for a “total and complete” ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Later, after a barrage of criticism for his remarks, he fine-tuned his proposal to call for a ban on Muslims from “terrorist countries.”

Although Clinton fares better than Trump in the latest polls on the question of how each of them would handle terrorism, the key question is when those polls were carried out. In most cases, Trump gets a temporary boost in public opinion surveys immediately after terror attacks, while Clinton prevails once the shock over the latest terrorist attacks subsides.

In other words, if voters are driven by emotion, Trump wins. If voters are guided by reason — and are mindful that Trump's anti-Muslim tirades play into the ISIS terrorists' hands by giving ammunition to their claims that the United States hates all Muslims — Clinton wins.

It may turn out to be a matter of timing. A look at voters' immediate reaction after the June 12 Orlando shooting can give us a hint of what could happen if there is a terrorist attack close to Election Day.

Before the Orlando massacre, Trump's poll numbers had nosedived, especially after his racist innuendo against U.S.-born federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel. (“He's Mexican.”)

Seventy percent of Americans had a negative opinion of him, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll that was released June 14, but that was mostly conducted before the Orlando shooting.

Immediately after the attack, and after Trump reiterated his previous calls on a temporary ban on Muslims and lashed out against Clinton for allegedly not using the term “radical Islam,” he rebounded in the polls. A June 18 Reuters-Ipsos survey showed that Trump had narrowed Clinton's lead from 14.3 percentage points before the Orlando shooting to 10.7 percentage points after it.

Likewise, Trump rose in the polls following the Nov. 13 terrorist attack in Paris, and then again after the Dec. 2 massacre in San Bernardino, pollsters say. Trump rose from 28 percent of the vote before the Paris attack to 32 percent on Dec. 1, the day before the San Bernardino attack. Then, after the San Bernardino attack, Trump's numbers rose again, to about 35 percent.

Trump himself has noted the connection between terrorist attacks and his rise in the polls. He told CNN on Dec. 3, after the San Bernardino shooting, that “Whenever there's a tragedy, everything goes up, my numbers go up because we have no strength in this country.”

My opinion: I hope I'm wrong about this, but — given the increase in terrorist attacks in recent months — nobody can rule out a new mass shooting or bombing before the U.S. elections, perhaps even a few days before the voting.

If that happens, the election's result will depend on the Clinton camp's ability to convince voters starting now that — as Clinton said in December — Trump “is ISIS’ best recruiter.”

Indeed, ISIS would love a Trump victory in November, because it would hurt U.S. anti-terrorist cooperation with moderate Muslim countries, and it would allow terrorists to argue to 1.6 billion Muslims around the world that the U.S. hates Islam. Trump is their perfect enemy.

To win in November, Clinton must warn about the possibility of new terrorist attacks, and make it a key part of her stump speech. Otherwise, her current lead in the polls may not mean much by Election Day.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español