The Biggest October Surprise This October Is That There's No Surprise

Pipe bombs targeted at prominent critics of the president coupled with a horrific massacre of Jews might normally shake up an election.
October 30, 2018, 2:54pm
Julian Assange, Osama bin Laden, and Richard Nixon got their hands dirty.
Images via Wikimedia Commons

"We live in an era, with Trump in the White House, where every morning is a surprise."

That's what Walter Shapiro, a columnist at Roll Call and political science lecturer at Yale who has covered the last ten presidential elections, told me late last week. I had just asked him about the spate of pipe bomb devices sent to prominent members of the press and political class known for disagreeing with President Donald Trump. As of Friday, ten days before the midterm elections that will determine the party sway of the House and Senate—and, depending on whom you ask, the future of the republic—at least 14 such packages had been discovered. (That morning, police arrested a 56-year-old registered Republican named Cesar Sayoc in connection with the suspicious packages, none of which had detonated or appeared to have caused harm. He was soon charged with at least five federal crimes.)

Then, on Saturday, came the nightmare at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The mass shooting, said by police to be the doing of a deranged anti-Semite named Robert Bowers, killed 11 and wounded six more, amounting to the worst attack on Jews in the history of the United States.

Meanwhile, Democrats have for some time now been favored to take over the House of Representatives, with Republicans expected to maintain control of the Senate. One might expect such a wave of spectacular political violence to have some kind of electoral impact—to shake things up. But as Shapiro suggested, it's awfully hard to imagine anything wowing the polarized numbness coursing through many Americans in an era when their president is prone to trigger global panic with his Twitter account—and mass shootings are the stuff of everyday life.

Still, whether they be acts of terrorism or mere dumps of scandalous information, last-minute, pre-election bouts of chaos have become so common over the past few decades that they have their own moniker: October Surprise. The only question is how big of a difference they make.

"In principle, an October Surprise would work by shifting voters’ attentions and causing them to focus on some aspect that causes some voters to either change their vote or change their likelihood of voting," Joshua D. Clinton, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, wrote me in an email, succinctly summing up the stakes.

Take the rager that was 2016. It was as if a surprise party was thrown for multiple people in the same room, and everyone was repeatedly screaming, "Happy Birthday," arguing over whose cake was better. There were so many moments labeled an "October Surprise" that one could hardly keep up. The three most notable, however, were when WikiLeaks released Hillary Clinton campaign emails; FBI director James Comey announced he would reopen an investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server just days before the election; and the Washington Post published the now infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which Donald Trump and Billy Bush casually degraded women on a bus.

"The WikiLeaks release was certainly intended to change voters’ opinions, but it's unclear whether the Access Hollywood release and the FBI decisions were released with the intention to try to influence voters," the political science professor, Clinton, told me. "It's further unclear whether any of the events actually changed people’s opinions or their likelihood of voting." (Nate Silver at FIveThirtyEight has argued the reopening of the Clinton email probe probably cost her the job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)

Generally, it seems as if there are two distinct notions of an October Surprise: one that is purposeful and not that much of a "surprise" (i.e. WikiLeaks dumping stolen documents because Julian Assange doesn't like Hillary Clinton), and then another that amounts to a truly shocking turn of events to virtually all relevant actors. "The real question," Shapiro said, "is when opposition research stops, and it becomes a genuine surprise. I like to define an 'October Surprise' as something totally unanticipated." (The phrase is broad and vague enough, too, to encapsulate twists that take place in September and early November.)

History is rife with examples of both. Citing the late William Safire, whom he dubbed the "quintessential political wordsmith," Shapiro explained that even as campaigns have always been ugly and full of frenzied vitriol, we didn't have an agreed-upon nomenclature for late-in-the-game shockers until fairly recently.

"The phrase actually came about in 1980, when the [Ronald] Reagan campaign kept worrying that the Carter campaign would unveil some sort of 'October Surprise,' which never happened—other than the fact that the Iranians, to screw Jimmy Carter, kept balking about releasing the [American] hostages, and didn't release them until five minutes after Reagan was sworn in on January 20," Shapiro said.

By the 90s, he added, the term was in pretty common usage, even if events that resemble October Surprises stretched back centuries. Politico traced perhaps the first plausible October Surprise to 1840. That's when federal prosecutors under Martin Van Buren, who very well could have been the president with the best hair, announced voting-fraud charges against the opposing Whig Party late into his reelection bid. (He lost anyway.) Then, for the next 200 years or so, you can zigzag all over to find examples, from a forged letter attributed to James A. Garfield (he lost the Electoral College but actually won the popular vote) to FDR bolstering his support in the black community in October 1940 by establishing the Tuskegee Airmen while running against a pro–civil rights Republican.

Fast-forward to October 1962, leading up to the midterms, when the United States nearly went to nuclear war with the Soviet Union over some missiles in Cuba. (Democrats did fairly well that November, possibly thanks to JFK's swift handling of the situation.) Then, in 1968, as he went head-to-head with Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon sought backchannels to derail announced peace talks between North and South Vietnam, fearing a potential resolution to the conflict would help his rival in the polls. (While he does appear to have put pressure on the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, to hold out for a better deal with his future administration, it's not clear Tricky Dick was the one responsible for those talks breaking down.) Decades later, in early November 2000, George Bush's 24-year-old DUI in Maine became public knowledge. (Karl Rove, Bush's adviser, argued it could have lost his boss five states. And he did not, of course, win the popular vote.)

After 9/11, too, Shapiro reminded me, "there was often widespread speculation for, like, ten years, about if there would be a terrorist attack right before [whatever] election." In 2004, Osama bin Laden notoriously publicized a tape, right before the presidential election, outlining the reasoning for the terrorist attacks and if nothing else putting the emphasis squarely back on George W. Bush's best issue.

Finally, in September 2008, the stock market crashed, and John McCain's insistence in the face of sure chaos that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" may not have improved his image as an out-of-touch guy who couldn't remember how many houses he owned. And, in 2012, the revelation that Mitt Romney complained to millionaire donors about "47 percent" of Americans being sops didn't do him any favors, either.

But besides the economy being stronger and terrorism (perhaps) weighing less heavily on many Americans' minds, the mechanics of elections themselves have begun to change the calculus for any would-be surprises.

Now, "one of things that mitigates an October Surprise is early voting," a relatively new option, at least on this level, Shapiro reminded me, and Clinton reiterated: "Because of how many people vote early nowadays... the impact of late events is limited because people have already cast their ballot." (As of last Thursday, as many as 11 million people had already voted.)

And with Americans of polarized political ideologies ever more rarely consuming the same media, the prospect of a terrorist attack, mass shooting, or some less gruesome event significantly altering election outcomes may not be all that realistic anymore. Trump's reaction to the tragedy at the Pittsburgh synagogue this past weekend was illustrative: After telling reporters he would probably "pass" on phoning the pipe bomb targets, he suggested the lives of innocent people freely practicing their religion in a place of worship might have been saved if there were armed guards inside. Then, right on schedule, he tweeted his disdain for the media, blaming it for sowing seeds of hatred. Trump, meanwhile, has said nothing about the fact that Bowers, the alleged shooter in Pittsburgh, falsely claimed Jews were assisting the "migrant caravans" the president is so obsessed with. (Bowers also appeared to find the president insufficiently hostile to Jews.)

Which is to say: We may have passed the point where final-inning shockers, violent or otherwise, can have a massive impact. With feelings about the president and the opposition so hardened, we can already see the shape of the wrapping, and guess what's inside. Unfortunately, now the only real surprise would be if nothing happened—if we opened the box, and there was nothing there but peace and calm.

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