Nov. 05–HIGH POINT — It’s a staple of political lore that’s been on steroids late in this campaign season.
The “October surprise” in politics refers to an unexpected, major development that can shift the direction of an election in the stretch run. This fall, the political phenomenon might be renamed “October surprises.”
The sudden, major developments that roiled the campaign season last month included:
–The killing of Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
The Saudi government has been roundly criticized for changing its story about how and why Khashoggi was killed. The killing has taken on wider dimensions because of Saudi Arabia’s key role as an oil producer and purchaser of U.S. military equipment.
–The caravan of Central American refugees making its way through Mexico toward the U.S. border. President Donald Trump has hammered away in campaign speeches for Republican candidates about the threats potentially posed by the caravan and the need to secure the U.S.-Mexican border.
–The arrest of a Florida man and vocal supporter of the president who has been charged with mailing pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, CNN and other liberal critics of Trump. None of the pipe bombs exploded. Trump condemned the mailings as “despicable acts.”
–The attack by an anti-Semitic gunman on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 worshipers dead and other congregants and responding police officers injured. The gunman in his online postings didn’t support the president, but critics have said Trump has unfairly tried to divert blame on the media for the toxic atmosphere in the country as a backdrop for the shooting. The president condemned the Pittsburgh shooting as a “wicked act of mass murder.”
An “October surprise” can influence the outlook of voters, especially when a traumatic or surprising event becomes one of the last images people have before casting a ballot, said Carla Cole, associate professor of political science at Guilford Technical Community College.
“I think it does make a difference,” Cole told The High Point Enterprise. “These are hot-button issues and significant events that people care about. I think it will energize voters to turn out for the election.”
That doesn’t mean an “October surprise” will completely overshadow more basic issues, such as health care coverage and preserving protection of pre-existing conditions, job creation and taxes, she said.
“At the end of the day, a lot of people vote with their pocketbooks,” Cole said. “But an ‘October surprise’ event may bring out voters who might not otherwise show up at the polls.”
An “October surprise” can impact the direction of momentum in a campaign late in the election cycle, said Pope “Mac” McCorkle, professor in the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Especially in a midterm situation like this one, momentum at the end can really matter,” McCorkle told The Enterprise. “How these ‘October surprises’ play out could be very important.”
An “October surprise” isn’t a recent development in American politics, as they date back to the 19th century. Here are some of the more prominent “October surprises” in U.S. political history:
–In October 1840, Democratic President Martin Van Buren’s administration announced electoral fraud charges against leading opposition Whig politicians. But the gambit didn’t work — Van Buren lost re-election.
–In October 1920, Democrats at the time aligned with segregationists floated rumors that Republican presidential nominee Warren Harding had black relatives in his lineage. The effort to rile up bigoted white voters didn’t work, as Harding won the White House.
–In October 1972, the administration of President Richard Nixon was worried about Democratic nominee George McGovern’s pledge to end the Vietnam War if elected. Through National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the Nixon administration publicly said “peace is at hand” when officials knew behind the scenes that talks weren’t advancing. But the peace reports helped Nixon route McGovern.
–In October 1980, the Iranian government announced it wouldn’t release 52 American hostages held at the embassy building in Tehran until after the election. Democratic President Jimmy Carter lost to Republican Ronald Reagan. The hostages were released shortly after Reagan took the oath of office in January 1981.
–In October 2008, the collapse of the American economy into what became known as the Great Recession jolted the campaigns of Democrat Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain. With outgoing Republican President George W. Bush in the White House, the fallout from the financial industry collapse helped scuttle McCain’s bid.
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