Trick or treat! Only when we are talking about the 2016 election, it’s been far too many tricks and not nearly enough treats for the American people. The October Surprises came fast and furious this year, with both the Clinton and Trump campaigns looking to land haymakers that would prove decisive when the polls open a week from now. They may be helping their respective causes in the race to the White House. They may not be. I can tell you it’s the American people who get hurt in the end.
Unveiling October Surprises
The October Surprise is defined as any political event in the month before an election specifically orchestrated by a campaign or group of supporters designed to affect the outcome. The term may be relatively new to American history (first used in 1972), but the concept has been around almost as long as our country.
In the election of 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson traded personal barbs, with Adams even claiming that Jefferson had died. Teddy Roosevelt took a bullet in 1912, and in 1964, fears over the ouster of the USSR’s Nikita Krushev and a Chinese nuclear test resulted in one of the few moments in American history where foreign relations concerns pushed a sex scandal off the front page.
It only picked up from there, and USA Today has a good summary for those inclined to read more. We thought we had seen everything including natural disasters used to October surprises, and then came 2016.
2016: A Very “Special” Election
Perhaps it’s the polarizing nature of the candidates, or the nastiest of their campaigns. Maybe it is the tenacity of the supporters and detractors, or the way the media is covering the election. Whatever the reason, most Americans will say they have never seen an election like this one, and many hope they never will again.
By now, you all know the site Wikileaks has been slowly releasing emails hacked from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. According to an article in Vox, it wasn’t due to a security breach on Google’s servers (he had a Gmail account), but instead Podesta was tricked into giving up his password. Oops.
What has resulted in an embarrassing drip, drip, drip of private emails. Outside of social media, the emails have been largely ignored other than by a passing story or two in the mainstream media. Blogs like The Political Insider went crazy with assurances that these bombshells would derail her campaign. They didn’t.
Tit for Tat
Then it was Trump’s turn when a vulgar 2005 hot-mic conversation with Billy Bush was finally released. It is hard to believe any denials that it wasn’t planned, not that it matters. Trump’s admission that he committed what could easily be perceived as sexual assault was closely followed by a parade of who accused him of all sorts of inappropriate behavior. It was a media frenzy, leading to his “the election is rigged” rhetoric. He spent weeks making denials, accusations, and veering off-message. True, partly true, or patently false, the October surprise had the desired effect.
For an analysis, Politico has a fairly partisan one here.
The biggest of the October surprises in the 2016 election will be remembered as not being launched by either of the campaigns or their surrogates. First, some background is required. NBC has a good article that outlines the entire Clinton email controversy, so I won’t go into depth here. The gist of it is:
“The controversy erupted in March 2015, when the New York Times reported that Clinton had used a personal email account based on a private server in her Chappaqua, New York, home to conduct government business while she was secretary of state — raising the possibility that she had skirted rules that require employees to keep such documents as part of the State Department’s official record”. –John Schuppe for NBC News.
Classified information was found among the emails turned over to the FBI, and the mystery surrounding the contents of over 33,000 emails she had deleted beforehand has stoked the fires of conspiracy theorists and Hillary detractors. Despite the strong belief she should have been indicted, Comey announced on July 5th no evidence was found that Hillary Clinton committed a crime. Perhaps to hedge his testimony, or to assuage pitchfork-wielding Republicans, Clinton and her staff were characterized by the FBI boss as “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
The Last Laugh
With Hillary Clinton absolved from wrongdoing, at least from the FBI and Obama-led Department of Justice, Americans moved on along with the campaign process. Three debates, countless leaked emails, and a juicy sex scandal later, we were all expected to make up our minds about which candidate would best serve us in the White House.
Then the bomb was dropped.
In a letter to chairmen of relevant House Committees, he states:
“In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation. I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”
Reopening the investigation is a controversial move this close to the election, and Comey did so under protest from Loretta Lynch and the Department of Justice. He justified the move in a letter to FBI employees you can read in the Washington Post.
Tsunami or Pond Ripples
So opinions are being formed in the country and in the media over Comey and his motives. A man heralded as a hero by the left and decried on the right last July is now public enemy number one for the former and a man of integrity by the latter. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. The only question that remains is what affect the October surprises, Comey’s bombshell included, will have at the polls. That question will be answered on November 8th, but until then, we get to listen to the pundits speculate.
Jamelle Bouie, in an article in Slate, explains why this latest reopening of the investigation into her email will not have an effect on Clinton. His assertion that voters are tribalistic; loyalty to a particular candidate or party at this point makes them nearly immune to October surprises. He does have a point.
If incontrovertible evidence existed that Clinton was an alien weakening humanity in preparation for extraterrestrial invasion, or Trump was cloning babies in the basement of his buildings to sell their stem cells to third-world potentates, a core group of supporters would still vote each of them.
I’m not kidding. They would. However, October surprises still pack a punch. According to an ABC/Washington Post tracking poll, as reported on Fox News, 34% of voters are less likely to choose Clinton following the FBI’s newest revelations. In a race that has Trump up by 2% or Clinton up by 12% depending on which poll you believe, that could be a dramatic swing. Regardless, it is bound to have some impact on the independent voters who determine close contests in swing states and ultimate determine most American elections. Tribalism may offer a natural immunity to October surprises, but not everyone belongs to one.
If You Can’t Convince Them, Confuse Them
I don’t know if FBI Director Comey’s last minute revelation was a planned hit on Hillary’s campaign or not. Regardless of the decision he made, half the population would be livid at him. If it was uncovered that a federal agency sat on this information until after the election, leading to Clinton becoming the president-elect, Trump’s claims of a rigged election will have more merit. On the other hand, her supporters have legitimate concerns. This may be an attempt to sway the election by a man appointed by a Republican and who had initially cleared her of wrongdoing.
In the end, October surprises only seek to confuse an already conflicted and borderline apathetic electorate. The Information Age provides us with equal parts information and disinformation. Without reliable sources to get our news from, we rely on the ones that most closely mirror our own ideologies or preconceived notions. Let the facts be damned.
One way or another, the election will be over soon. A candidate will win, and three others will lose. While the election may not be determined, the real loser in this mess is already clear. The American people are being manipulated. So long as we continue not to demand better, the trend of ugly elections, partisan coverage from media, and ruthless October surprises will just become the new normal.