The 2020 election season already has provided enough October surprises to fill a pinata, but the would-be bombshells involving President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden have yet to pack much of a punch.
The Bob Woodward book, the Trump tax returns, the Hunter Biden laptop emails — so far none has been able to hold the public’s attention beyond the first few days of the news cycle, which may say more about the roller coaster news cycle than the disclosures themselves.
“I think the October surprise is more difficult today because of the hyperspeed world of communications we live in,” said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. “There are so many competing avenues, there are so many competing social platforms and cable stations and blogs and websites and newspapers, so it’s very hard to herd everybody in one direction at the same time.”
Hard, but not impossible. Just four years ago, FBI Director James B. Comey upended the presidential race by reopening the investigation into the private email server used by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. His letter to Congress was dated Oct. 28, 2016 — 11 days before the election — and has been credited, in retrospect, with cutting Mrs. Clinton’s poll lead in half and sowing the seeds of her stunning defeat.
“At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so,” FiveThirtyEight elections guru Nate Silver said in a May 2017 article. “Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.”
A book by political reporter Devlin Barrett released last month is aptly titled “October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election.”
In many respects, the FBI email investigation was the perfect surprise. It arrived within a fortnight of the election, before the media narrative could shift, and came from a completely unexpected source: an Obama administration figure viewed as sympathetic to Mrs. Clinton and not its beneficiary, candidate Trump.
That may be the problem with this year’s bombshells: You could see them coming.
Nobody was particularly shocked to see the anti-Trump Mr. Woodward and The New York Times drop explosive stories about the president leading up to the election — it would have been more of a shock if they hadn’t — and the New York Post’s rightward tilt lessened the impact of the Hunter Biden email scoop.
Then there’s the frenetic pace of 2020, which arrived with a pandemic and could exit with an asteroid strike — with months of protests and rioting in between — raising the bar for explosive election disclosures to record heights.
Floyd Ciruli, director of the University of Denver Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research, said the whirlwind year made it difficult for The New York Times’ reporting about Mr. Trump’s tax returns, for example, to take root.
“The story got some traction, but the next thing you knew you had the debate, and the story was pushed back, and then the president got the virus, and then the debate got pushed back,” said Mr. Ciruli. “So there’s just so many events piled up that it’s hard to not only get traction but to affect the electorate and tighten the race.”
If the media cycle moves too quickly for such surprises to resonate with the voters, Mr. Trump may bear some of the blame with his constant changing of the conversation.
“What we’re in is a completely different news cycle than even four years ago,” Mr. Ciruli said. “Partially, it’s that our news consumption is different, but it’s also Trump. Because he is so news-needy and is in the news so much, there is something every day superseding what just happened.”
Technically, the tax return story and the Woodward book, in which Mr. Trump said he sought to downplay the dangers of the novel coronavirus at first to avoid stoking alarm, were September surprises. But that’s the other thing about 2020: the expansion of ever-earlier voting means curveballs need to break sooner.
“One of the elements of the battlefield here this time around is this idea that we’re already in an election,” said Kentucky State University associate professor Wilfred Reilly. “You’re now seeing the time frame for sketchy political antics go back weeks. We’ve been in election mode much longer than we normally are.”
In fact, he said, “You can argue that we’ve been in election mode all summer.”
From Vietnam to Iran
Presidential candidates have sought to pull last-minute fast ones arguably as long as there have been elections, but the phrase “October surprise” first emerged in 1968, when Nixon aide William Casey used the term to describe President Johnson’s effort to negotiate a peace deal before the election to boost Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey.
“Casey was afraid outgoing President Lyndon Johnson would engineer a Vietnam peace initiative to give Humphrey, his vice president, a boost over Nixon. Casey privately called it an October Surprise,” New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in 2002, according to NPR.
The expression took off after it was used to describe a failed October surprise: President Carter’s attempt to have the Iranian hostages released before the 1980 election.
“The Reagan campaign went out there starting in August and September warning of an October surprise: that Carter was going to pull the hostages out of his hip pocket and produce them, and the theory went that the American people, in a wave of adulation and appreciation, would reelect Jimmy Carter,” Mr. Shirley said.
In 2000, Republican nominee George W. Bush was hit with a November surprise — a Nov. 2 report about his 1976 DUI arrest in Maine — but went on to win the squeaker election against Democrat Al Gore after a Florida recount that went to the Supreme Court.
Not every October surprise is human-caused. When Superstorm Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, 2012, it wound up benefiting President Obama, who was at the forefront of the relief effort, to the detriment of Republican Mitt Romney, who halted his campaign for several days in the storm’s aftermath.
Another unexpected election-shaper: The September 2008 Lehman Bros. crash, which was largely blamed on the party in power — the Republicans — thereby hurting Republican candidate John McCain in his race against Mr. Obama.
“The idea is that after the World Series is over, the American people start to focus on the presidential campaign, and that’s when you drop your bombshell,” said Mr. Shirley. “And everybody’s expecting it, so it’s not really a surprise.”
Still, Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign reeled after the Oct. 7 release of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which the Republican used vulgar language to talk about his relationships with women. He later apologized.
That revelation’s impact was likely blunted by WikiLeaks’ publishing on the same day emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that raised questions about the Democratic nominee’s authenticity.
The 2020 election cycle also has revealed the power of the tech giants to fuel or suppress October surprises in their treatment of the Hunter Biden email story. Facebook limited the story’s distribution, and Twitter banned users from retweeting the report while freezing the Post’s account.
“The Hunter Biden story has been actively suppressed to a degree I haven’t previously seen in this country,” Mr. Reilly said. “My own bias is center-right, but this is something where you literally saw Facebook and Twitter say that this story could not be shared. That’s something I’ve never seen with anything, unless you’re talking about the plans for 3D-printed guns or child pornography. I think that’s extremely bizarre.”
There are almost two weeks until the Nov. 3 election, and a presidential debate Thursday, which means that nobody would be surprised to see another surprise.
“Is there something out there? Is there a five-point shift in Hunter or in a late October surprise?” Mr. Ciruli said. “I don’t know. I’ve been waiting for it, the surprise that moves things. I’ve seen so many things that I thought might be the surprise, and nothing’s moving the numbers.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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