The Dreaded October Surprise
Spoiler: 11th-hour Stories Rarely Tip the Scales
By Brendan Wilson
October is a rough month for presidential hopefuls. The weeks leading up to the election are a breathless wind sprint through a political minefield. The goal: to make it to election day without stepping on an explosive carefully planted by the opposition. Of course, this is easier said than done. The campaign’s final days are marked by sleepless nights, endless itineraries, and a mind-numbing last-minute tour of the swing states and network television spots to maximize exposure. All this while fearfully glancing over shoulders for the dreaded election cycle boogieman: the October Surprise.
The October Surprise is the damaging announcement or event that seems to drop days before voters go to the polls. It’s not difficult to recall several recent examples. Who can erase from memory Trump’s hot mic on the Billy Bush bus or the FBI's last-minute investigation into Clinton's emails. This election season has not disappointed. The NY Post has given us a taste (and more than enough photos) of Hunter Biden’s private life and the Times gave us over 10,000 words on Trump’s federal income taxes, or lack thereof.
The October Surprise has been scaring the trousers off candidates from Garfield to Bush. There is no shortage of last-minute shocks in America’s 228 year electoral history. But as we’ll see below, though late theatrics make big splashes, they have very little electoral impact.
Immigration has been a thorny issue for politicians since families began arriving here in search of a better life. In the 19th century, native derision was aimed at the Chinese. To address this, both Republican James Garfield and his opponent, Democrat Winfield Scott, advanced anti-immigration platforms. But on October 20th, 1880, the New York Truth published a private letter allegedly penned by Garfield in which he declares that businesses have the right “to buy labor where they can get it the cheapest.” The campaign was slow to respond because Garfield couldn’t recall whether he had written it, but eventually examined and denounced the letter as a fraud. The damage cost him California, the state with the highest population of Chinese immigrants, but he won the election 214 to 155.
Theodore Roosevelt’s October Surprise was a bullet to the chest outside a Milwaukee auditorium. Before a speech on October 7th, 1912, he was shot by a would-be assassin. A bewildered crowd watched as he pulled from his breast pocket the blood-stained remarks that had stopped the bullet. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” he said, referring to the 3rd party ticket on which he was running, then launched into his 50-page speech. The bullet and the speech were both for naught, and he lost soundly to the Democrat from NJ, Woodrow Wilson.
In 1968, as the unpopular Vietnam War raged, Democratic president LBJ tried to tee up an election victory for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. He announced a cessation to bombing just days before the election. But Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, feared that a last-minute peace deal would tip the scales, so he used a backchannel to convince the South Vietnamese not to attend the scheduled peace talks. In October, Saigon announced that they were backing out, seemingly hammering the final nail in Humphrey’s coffin.
Vietnam was again on the menu in 1972, this time with Nixon on the defensive after having failed to deliver on his campaign promise of ending the war. After a preliminary deal had been struck between the communist North Vietnamese in Hanoi and the United States, Henry Kissinger rushed to Washington to announce in a press conference on October 26th that “peace was at hand.” Peace, however, was not at hand. The South Vietnamese rejected the terms and the war raged for another two years. Did these events impact the outcomes of either election? Hardly. In 1968, voters were disenchanted by an unpopular war and rampant civil unrest. In 1972, Nixon boasted a booming economy, so, in both cases, the October theatrics were unnecessary. More ironically, Nixon would have won with a comfortable margin even if he hadn’t broken into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.
By October of 1980, Iranian revolutionaries had held 52 Americans hostage for nearly a year at the US Embassy in Tehran. President Jimmy Carter was vigorously negotiating their release in a last-ditch effort to save his reelection bid. On October 21st, though a deal was close at hand, Iranian president Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Rajai surprisingly declared that the hostages would not be released. The Carter campaign called foul, accusing the Reagan camp of having struck a secret deal with Iranians to delay their release until after the election. The rumor gained legs when the Iran-Contra scandal broke 7 years later and was further reinforced when former National Security Advisor Gary Sick penned a NY Times editorial in 1992 declaring that the secret dealings had, in fact, taken place. Even if fate had been kinder to Carter on the hostage crisis, his reelection bid was doomed from the outset. Carter rode into the election battle with low ratings and an awful economy and Reagan won in a rout, 489 to 48.
The Supreme Court drama of Bush v. Gore in 2000 has overshadowed that election’s October Surprise. Just weeks before voters cast their ballots, a local television station in Portland, Maine dusted off a story from 1976 in which George W Bush was arrested for a DUI after an all-night bender with former tennis champion John Newcombe. In a press conference, Bush admitted to the faux pas, saying, “I’m not proud of that. I made some mistakes.” Though his political strategist, Karl Rove, would later claim that the story cost him a few states, it ultimately did not affect the outcome. Despite losing the popular vote by roughly 500,000 votes, the Supreme Court flipped Florida’s 29 electoral votes to Bush, sealing the deal.
Ah, the malaise of 2016. The entire election was something dreamt up by the writers of House of Cards, with October as the season finale. It started when Wikileaks dumped a trove of campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, humiliating the campaign and casting Clinton in a decidedly Machiavellian light. A recording of a lewd conversation then surfaced between Donald Trump and Billy Bush on an Access Hollywood bus. “When you’re the star they let you do it,” was the least memorable quote from the recording. Then, in a bizarre turn, FBI Director James Comey announced at the 11th-hour an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, only to declare days before the vote that no wrongdoing had been found. But did any of it matter? Though 2016 proved that I know nothing about anything, I would argue that the nationalistic undercurrents that brought us Narendra Modi’s rise, the UK’s Brexit, and Donald Trump’s popularity were too powerful for Hillary Clinton to overcome. These currents would have delivered Trump to White House without emails or Wikileaks.
As of this writing, there are two weeks before the November 3rd vote. Given the intensity of this campaign, and Donald Trump’s presence on the ticket, there are sure to be more theatrics. But there has already been a great deal of drama. It started with the NY Times story on The Donald’s taxes, which gave way to the president’s Covid-19 diagnosis. Last Thursday, the NY Post broke a story that claimed that Hunter Biden connected his father with Burisma executives, contradicting the vehement denials of the vice president. Where is all this headed?
The October Surprise is the creation of clever campaign managers properly timing explosive information to goad American voters, sheep that we are, away from our chosen flock. As we have seen, history suggests that this effort has little effect. Far too many of us are already too entrenched to hazard a scamper across the political divide. Trump’s taxes and Hunter Biden’s crack pipe will flip very few votes, if any. The October surprise is a humiliating, cringeworthy feature of our electoral politics, but it doesn’t tip the scales.
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Gee, T., White, J., Sitrin, S., & Gerstein, B. (2016, October 04). 15 October Surprises That Wreaked Havoc on Politics. Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/10/october-surprises-214320
The History of the October Surprise. (2016, October 11). Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-october-surprise-180960741/
Klein, C. (2012, October 12). When Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in 1912, a Speech May Have Saved His Life. Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.history.com/news/shot-in-the-chest-100-years-ago-teddy-roosevelt-kept-on-talking
October surprise: Does it ever swing a US election? (2016, October 30). Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19887898