While some have been holding their breath in ancticipation of what the next batch of dramatic revelations from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, Guccifer2 or some other “Russian” hacker may be, many have already thrown in the towel, saying there is little that can further surprise the population in a presidential race that has already surpassed all expectations for dramatic developments, unexpected twists and turns and sheer shock value.
However, if what Princeton history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer wrote overnight on CNN is accurate, the best, or rather worst, is yet to come.
In an op-ed, the professor writes that “as September comes to an end, presidential-election observers are beginning to wonder if there will be an October Surprise. In a campaign where the unexpected has become normalized, both parties — but particularly Democrats — suspect that the next month could bring a shocking revelation.”
The notion of an October Surprise gained widespread popularity in the 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan’s campaign feared that President Jimmy Carter would announce a resolution to the Iran hostage crisis only weeks or days before Americans went to vote. While Carter was in fact working on an end to the crisis, irrespective of the election, the Iranians did not release the hostages until after Reagan’s inauguration.
Indeed, the “October Surprise” is a staple of presidential elections: some examples listed by Zelizer include what he dubs the “the most dramatic incarnation of a political surprise” which took place in 1968, specifically on October 31, when Johnson announced that he would undertake an immediate bombing halt against the North Vietnamese in the hope of reaching a peace agreement. The announcement sent shudders up the spine of Republican Richard Nixon, whose campaign had promised that as president he would bring peace.
Then in 1992, with just a few days left in the three-way presidential race between President George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was indicted for having lied to a prosecutor during the Iran-Contra investigation. The indictment brought back memories of scandals in the Reagan administration to which Bush, as Vice President, had been associated. The news certainly hurt Bush, though most agree many other factors were responsible for his defeat, including the economic recession.
Another example, highlighted by Paul Joseph Watson, involves the 2004 appearance of Osama Bin Laden in a videotaped message a few days before the presidential election in which he all but urged people to vote for Senator John Kerry, which was later acknowledged by both George W. Bush and John Kerry as the deciding factor behind Bush’s victory in that year’s close election.
Which brings us to 2016, when according to Zelizer, “the October Surprise is more likely this year than others simply because this has been a campaign where every week has revealed a new surprise. Donald Trump has already made this one of the most unpredictable races in American politics. His strategy is to constantly do what nobody thought would be done, to make statements or throw out accusations once considered out of bounds.”
The Princeton professor points out that while Trump’s very nature invites shocking and dramatic revelations, there is also the fact that “the two leading candidates have intense unfavorable ratings. This means there are many organizations, politicians and individuals who don’t want to see one of these two candidates win. If the polls continue to tighten, this will greatly increase the incentives for political activists on both sides to do something that will sway the electorate their way.”
To be sure, there is much material, both official and “hacked” that can be used against either candidate to generate a last minute change of public opinion.
But it doesn’t have to be premeditated “surprise” or leak: Zelizer writes that a “national-security crisis” may unfold in the coming weeks and that both Clinton and Trump would “have to adjust their campaigns” to deal with an event that “could have a dramatic effect.”
“In an age of terrorism, the possibilities for a dramatic event always loom large. The national security threat that Americans now face is one that is highly unpredictable since we are not dealing just with adversarial state actors or even organized terror networks but lone wolves who can cause injury, death and chaos at any time. Regardless of its origins, the bomb that exploded in New York on Saturday was a painful reminder of the kinds of fears and dangers with which we must live.“
The professor concludes by noting that by now it is clear that both candidates are extremely skilled in the art of political warfare: Clinton, because of her many decades of experience in different roles in politics, and Trump, because of his time in the media spotlight, are quite comfortable going after each other in ways that might give other politicians pause. In the final weeks, it will be time to unleash absolutely everything they have on the other.
Which perhaps means that “a calm final month would probably be the biggest shocker of all” but Zelizer does not buy that, and instead says that we should all hold on to our seats. For many reasons, “the odds are pretty good that something shocking will happen next month.”
And with that all eyes turn again to Putin, pardon Julian Assange and/or the countless citizen journalists who have made the most mudslinging presidential election also the most entertaining one, for what promises to be a dramatic crescendo with just a few weeks left until the fateful November 8, a period which as Clinton stated earlier today “the next 50 days will determine the next 50 years“