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Bracing for an October Surprise

The 2022 congressional m

With the midterm elections less than four weeks away, both parties are bracing for a potential October surprise.

idterm elections are now less than four weeks away. Capitol Hill is quiet as lawmakers have flocked back to their districts and states trying to sew up last-minute support for their reelection campaigns.

Most candidates are hoping that the news cycle stays quiet too. In other words: they do not want an October surprise. (Or, at the very least, they do not want one that would harm their candidacy or their party.)

An October surprise can be any piece of news, good or bad, that has the potential to upend the trajectory of a campaign, and history is rife with them. For example: President Donald Trump’s COVID diagnosis right before the 2020 presidential election. It refocused voters on what was arguably then the top issue facing the country (the pandemic) and called into question the president’s leadership through the health crisis.

Some analysts have called President Joe Biden’s decision last week to pardon individuals with federal marijuana convictions an October surprise. If that announcement is the most surprising thing that happens in the next four weeks, we would be … well … surprised.

Let’s take a look at some October surprises of the past, and whether these events really had any impact on the campaign trail.

What is the origin of the term “October surprise”?

According to CNN, the term “October surprise” was coined by William Casey in 1980. At the time, Casey was Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign manager. In the months leading up to the election, the Jimmy Carter administration was furiously trying to secure the release of several Americans held hostage in Iran. The nation was consumed with the drama, and a release would have been welcome news for the politically struggling incumbent president.

As The Washington Post reported at the time, “The biggest fear in Ronald Reagan’s inner circle is that President Carter will get an unexpected boost in the campaign from an ‘October Surprise,’” in the form of a hostage release.

The Reagan camp did not need to worry. The Iranian government halted negotiations with the White House in October 1980. The hostages were let go just minutes after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981.

As the BBC concluded, “The hostage crisis certainly contributed to a sense of national malaise and gave Reagan yet another point on which to question Carter's leadership and competence.”

Rutgers University history professor David Greenberg recently told The Hill that he thinks the term “October surprise” has eroded over the last 40 years. “I think over the years, it’s sort of been watered down to refer to any surprising news that comes in October that might affect the outcome,” Greenberg said. “Big news happens in October nowadays and we call it an October surprise. It’s lost a bit of its meaning.”

Let’s take a look at some past surprises to see if that statement rings true.

What are some of the most memorable October surprises?

While the term “October surprise” was coined just a couple of generations ago, history provides several examples of what likely would qualify as last-minute, groundbreaking news.

As USA Today noted, in the 1800 presidential election, which pitted then-Vice President John Adams against his rival Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton released a 54-page letter in which he called his fellow Federalist Adams the “enemy” and alleged Adams had an “ungovernable temper.”

Jefferson won that election, but in an internet-less age it is impossible to know how quickly those allegations made their way into the political bloodstream.

USA Today said an October surprise almost swayed the outcome of the 1880 presidential election. That year, The New York Truth published a letter it claimed was written by Republican candidate James Garfield. The letter dismissed voters’ concerns about Chinese immigrants stealing jobs from American workers. Specifically, the letter said, employers had the right to “buy labor where they can get it the cheapest.”

The letter was later proven to be a fake. Journalists were arrested, but the damage was not insignificant. According to historian Joseph Cummins, the letter cost Garfield California and “nearly lost him the close election against Democrat Winfield Hancock.”

While there was a lot more going on behind the scenes in the 1972 election, USA Today reminded readers that, on October 26, 1972, Nixon National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger held a press conference announcing that “peace [was] at hand” in the Vietnam War. It was not. Peace talks collapsed a month after the election, but, again, the damage was done. “Kissinger helped drown out news of the budding Watergate scandal and ensure Nixon's decisive re-election victory over George McGovern,” said USA Today.

In October 1992, 12 years after the term “October surprise” was coined, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, a good friend and colleague of then-President George H.W. Bush, was indicted for his role in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal. Challenger Bill Clinton already was leading in the polls, however.

Eight years later, an October surprise hit the elder Bush’s son when it was reported that, at the age of 30, then-candidate George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving. But the younger President Bush capitalized on an October surprise four years later. One week before the 2004 presidential elections, Al-Jazeera broadcast a tape of terrorist Osama Bin Laden taunting the president and issuing vague threats. According to the BBC, “Bush immediately worked the images into his campaign message, warning that only he could keep America safe.”

October 2016 was a big month for October surprises. The Washington Post published a video of Donald Trump and TV personality Billy Bush discussing, and laughing about, grabbing women while The New York Times alleged Trump had not paid federal taxes for nearly 20 years. (The Times ran a similar story in October 2020, a month before that presidential election, that reported Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes during his first year in the White House.)

Additionally, just 11 days before election day 2016, the FBI announced that it had reopened an investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s staff and their use of a private email server. The polls had been tightening the days before the news broke, but Clinton still was in the lead.

As readers certainly recall, Trump won the election, and Clinton to this day still attributes a large part of the outcome of the 2016 election on the FBI’s announcement just before Election Day.

Do October surprises really impact the election?

Shana Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University, told The Hill, “[W]e shouldn’t overstate the effect that scandals can have on voters because there are still a large number of people who don’t pay attention to politics.”

Perhaps she is right. According to BBC, late-breaking news rarely impacts the outcome of an election. The Clinton FBI investigation might be the exception, along with the reelection of President Barack Obama.

As BBC recalled, public polls in 2021 put President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney pretty “much neck-and-neck in the 10 days before the election.” Then Hurricane Sandy happened. “The disaster gave President Obama the chance to look presidential as he dealt with the emergency, and he got a bipartisan boost from Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who supported the president in Sandy’s wake.” Romney, meanwhile, “was put in a difficult position because he couldn't look like he was campaigning during the tragedy.”

Despite the fact that October surprises seem to have very little real effect on an election’s outcome, according to The Hill, both parties are bracing for unwelcome news this month. (The Hill noted there are already have been “a handful of unexpected hiccups,” including OPEC’s decision to cut oil production and “detailed allegations that Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker paid for his then-girlfriend’s abortion more than a decade ago.”)

What else do they think could matter at this point?

Fox News interviewed several Republican and Democratic strategists about the potential for an October surprise this year. GOP communications expert Brett O’Donnell reminded readers that, in midterm elections, voters are “paying attention to the issues that are most salient in their own backyard.” To him, that means personal scandals will matter less and news about the economy and Russia will matter more.

Democratic strategist Laura Fink seems to agree that national issues will be the focus over the next four weeks — but she disagrees about which issues will matter. In fact, she thinks Election 2022’s big surprise already has happened. “This year, the most potent October surprise came early. In June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade,” Fink said. Fink said that decision “ignited voters” and, for example, resulted in a doubling Kansas’ primary turnout from 2018.

Maybe, but with the stock market behaving erratically, a president entering octogenarian-hood this month, the escalating conflict in Ukraine that has seen Russian President Vladimir Putin threaten to use nuclear weapons, and former President Donald Trump stumping for GOP candidates around the country, it seems likely that we’ll see some newsworthy event over the next few weeks that could have an impact on the outcome of the midterms.

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