They call it the “October surprise,” the idea is that a news event – potentially manipulated by some group — with the potential to influence the outcome of a presidential election bursts upon the scene in the last month of the campaign.
This time around pundits predicted that the October surprise could be last-minute economic numbers, a deepening crisis in the European Union, or learning what Republican candidates think about rape. It turned out to be a hurricane.
Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, John Baer predicted that Hurricane Sandy could be the ultimate October surprise, with an “important psychological effect across a broad swath of the eastern United States.” At a crucial moment it elevates President Obama, he argued, “underscores his presidential demeanor and coolness under fire, and helps boost his assertion that big government is a plus.”
Both the Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns recalibrated their schedules and strategies in the face of the storm. Maryland temporarily suspended early voting, and most of cable news was devoted to the big weather event – a “crisis-of-the-week” that trumped politics as usual.
According to the New York Times, television stations in some states decided not to run campaign ads during the storm, while the campaigns balanced last-minute persuasion against looking crass and opportunistic.
With the election happening only a week after the disaster, the record-setting damage could also disrupt voting in some places on Nov. 6.
The term “October surprise” was first used in 1980, initially when rumors spread that Jimmy Carter was preparing a military invasion of Iran to rescue the hostages and help him get re-elected. Allegations surfaced later that Ronald Reagan’s team had its own “surprise,” purposely slowing down the hostage release to block a boost for Carter.
But the idea goes back farther. In October 1968, for example, the surprise might have been called “Mission Not Accomplished.” As the race between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon was winding down, President Lyndon Johnson announced a bombing halt of North Vietnam on Oct. 31. He apparently hoped that peace negotiations would bear fruit by the time of the election. They didn’t, and Nixon won.
Less than a month before the 1972 election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, announced that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam. Nixon was already winning, but Kissinger’s statement increased Nixon’s standing. The war continued until 1975.
Just four days before the 1992 election, Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, was indicted in the Iran-Contra scandal. Republicans accused the independent counsel of timing the announcement to hurt George H.W. Bush’s re-election chances.
Clinton won the election. But on Christmas Eve, in the waning days of the first Bush presidency, the exiting president pardoned Weinberger just days before his trial was scheduled to begin. Technically, that made it a double surprise, or possibly a double cross.
Days before the 2000 election, Fox News unearthed an old report that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in that state in 1976. Considering the source, this may have been an October surprise pre-emption – a way to defuse the impact of the story.
On Oct. 29, 2004 Al Jazeera aired a video of Osama bin Laden. He called out the Bush administration and said, “Your security does not lie in the hands of Kerry, Bush, or al-Qaeda … Your security is in your own hands.” This may have given Bush a bounce, putting the “war on terror” back in the center of the debate. As a surprise, it was an example of the unintended type.
Four years later, the “surprise” turned out to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. This time it is a natural disaster that draws attention back to concerns about extreme weather and climate change. It also makes Romney’s only reference to the environment in his convention acceptance speech sound more callous and poorly timed than mocking.
“I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet,” Romney said.
Two months after that pledge, Hurricane Sandy brings attention back to climate change — despite the relative silence of both leading presidential candidates. It is too soon to attribute the storm to manmade origins, yet hard not to wonder if the recent increase in huge storms is related.
Climate scientists have been talking about this kind of extreme weather for years. Given that, Sandy should not be such a surprise after all.