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Experts: October Surprises no longer game-changers

By
Evelyn Wang, Medill News Service
Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. UPI File Photo
Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. UPI File Photo

Two bombshells exploded on Oct. 7, two days before the second presidential debate and a month before Election Day. Each presidential candidate took a hit.

One came from The Washington Post, which delivered a grade A scorcher: A 2005 recording of Donald Trump bragging, "When you're a star...you can do anything...Grab them by the pussy."

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The other came from WikiLeaks, which published 20,000 emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's personal email account, allegedly provided by the same Russian hackers who targeted the Democratic National Committee.

Both revelations can be viewed in the tradition of so-called October Surprises, game-changing news events in the last weeks of an election campaign intended to influence the results.

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In theory, they come late in the game, making it hard for targeted candidates to defend themselves. Many disclosures have harmed campaigns, and a few have even clinched the election.

But 2016 may mark the end of an era for October Surprises. Although both surprises this year include more damaging personal information than revelations in previous campaigns, experts say they are not the game-changers of years past. They have not killed any campaigns, are not likely to decide the election, and are not even particularly surprising.

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October Surprises have been showing up for some 200 years, historians say, but the phenomenon got its conspiracy theory reputation as well as the term "October Surprise" in the 1980 race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

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Candidate Reagan's team worried that if President Carter resolved the Iran hostage crisis before the election that would carry him to victory. Carter failed, and a few days before the election, Iran announced it would not release the Americans. Reagan won that November and when the hostages were finally released minutes after his January inauguration, some accused him of making a deal with Iran to keep them locked up until after the election, according to an account in Smithsonian magazine.

Since then, many October Surprises have roiled presidential elections. Some of the most famous include the news story that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in 1976, a disclosure that his political strategist Karl Rove said may have cost him five states in the 2000 election. Another is Mitt Romney's "47 percent" gaffe in late September 2012, which he later admitted "did real damage" to his campaign.

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But although past October Surprises have involved sex scandals, wars, and Osama bin Laden, most have not been as juicy as the ones this year.

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"The October Surprises of the past seem tame in comparison," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor and expert on the presidency, political communication, and political scandals.

"These cut much more to the core of the problems the campaigns face," Rottinghaus said in a phone interview. "Although Mitt Romney faced some criticism for his 47 percent comment, it wasn't as disastrous a serious legal or moral issue as the Trump issue, or even potentially the Clinton issue. Past surprises have been pretty low key compared to that."

Historically, October Surprises have been foreign policy based, Rottinghaus said, but as campaigns become more individually driven, they have taken a turn toward the personal.

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John Llewellyn, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University who specializes in rhetoric and crisis communication, said the Trump tape goes more to questions about a candidate's character than typical campaign surprises.

"In some ways," Llewellyn said, "people could say it's not just about you, this seems to be you."

When more than one October Surprise occurs, one disclosure will likely overshadow the other, which may be judged less significant even if it would have been a bigger deal on its own, Llewellyn said.

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"The Wikileaks stuff is a little more policy driven," Llewellyn said. "The Wikileaks stuff, if you're not a political aficionado, could put you to sleep a little quicker. The other is more salacious and whether it's a good thing or not, that tends to drive public attention more acutely."

However, Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University who has written two books about political scandals, said the content of the WikiLeaks emails is not as objectively scandalous as the Trump recording. The Trump campaign "is very upset that the American public isn't more upset that the Clinton campaign actually coordinates campaign events," Dagnes said. "Just on its face, that is ridiculous.

"...You think in some way shape or form the American public is going to be more interested in the intricate techniques of a man (Podesta) whom they have never heard of, in a campaign that they don't care about, compared to using the 'p' word?"

In fact, the WikiLeaks surprise has been overshadowed not just by the Trump tape, but by events surrounding the WikiLeaks data dump itself, Llewellyn said, such as Ecuador cutting off Julian Assange's Internet access and the alleged involvement of the Russians.

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"The actual content ([of Podesta's email] becomes less significant than who's delivering the content and how, and the implications of that for national security and international relations," the Wake Forest professor said. "In that way, it again puts the shade on the content, because the content is somewhat contaminated."

Houston's Rottinghaus, however, thinks the dual release of the October Surprises has hurt both campaigns equally in terms of undecided voters. But neither surprise will be enough to significantly change the views of either candidates' base supporters or actually decide the outcome of the election, experts agreed.

"These surprises are being sprung in a campaign atmosphere where everybody's opinion is fairly baked into the cake," Dagnes said.

The information has little shock value, Rottinghaus said.

"Trump supporters will stick with him, and Clinton's supporters will stay with her," he said. "The fact that they have nowhere else to go, it mitigates the impact of that scandal... Now you're stuck with the nominee you're given. That may be somebody who is inherently flawed."

And we have been expecting October Surprises for so long, Llewellyn said, that we no longer find them, well, surprising.

"It's influential, but it's not as much of a deal-breaker anymore," Llewellyn said. "I don't think it's as big a reset, especially now that we're watching for it."

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"It's still possible to have a surprise that could be very powerful, but nobody should be surprised about surprises now."

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