"Events, dear boy, events." The live debates are over and most polls are showing a growing gap between the two main presidential candidates. With only a few weeks to go before the election and with many hundred of thousands of Americans having already chosen their candidate in early voting, there is a strong presumption that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th President of the United States. However, it is worth remembering Harold MacMillan's quote from over 50 years ago, that events can change everything.
In 2004 in Spain, the Popular Party (PP) was heading to re-election with Jose Maria Aznar's designated successor as Prime Minister planning to continue the party's dominance of the political scene. That all changed three days before the election, with the Madrid train bombing leaving 192 dead and over 2,000 injured. The perceived mishandling of the attack by the Government brought a huge backlash against the PP and handed the election to Socialists.
For American politicians and journalists the phrase "October Surprise" has reached almost mythical status. First coming into the political lexicon in 1972, it refers to an event or events that happens close to the election that can have a dramatic effect on the outcome. Every election year both sides hope and worry about what might happen in either a planned or unplanned way. Sometimes one campaign hopes to author a "surprise" on the other, sometimes it comes out of the blue. They can also be external events that just happen, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and dramatically shift the narrative of the campaign.
There appears to be no hard and fast rules about what actually constitutes an October Surprise and they seem to inhabit journalistic folklore as much as fact, probably in the same category as the much hoped for but rarely occurring "deadlocked convention". They are more often things that one side worries about that would give their opponents a boost. The Nixon campaign in 1968 worried that Lyndon Johnson would announce a major initiative to bring the Vietnam War to a close to boost Hubert Humphrey's campaign. Allegedly, Nixon used back channels with the South Vietnamese government to stop this happening. Similarly, in 1980, Reagan's Republican campaign team were deeply concerned that the Iranians would release their Embassy hostages giving President Carter a boost in the last few days of the campaign. This never came to pass and in the end the Iranians deliberately held out until moments after Reagan was sworn in as one last act humiliation for Carter.
Labor Day has long been seen to be the official start of the campaign, although that reality has long since passed and campaigns which don't put the summer to good use usually pay the price in November. This September saw Clinton's post-Convention lead slowly dissolve and by the end of the month Trump and Clinton where running pretty much level.
This year October has been an interesting month in terms of how the campaign has unfolded. It was the month of the three Presidential debates and most political commentators feel that Clinton won all of them. That has put her in a good position but the major game changer seems to have been the Access Hollywood tape from 2005 where Trump made crude and lewd comments about women. The resulting backlash gathered further momentum when 11 women came forward to accuse him of inappropriate sexual behaviour; his poll numbers have taken a significant hit and Clinton has opened up a significant lead. When the history of this campaign is written, the tape could well be seen as this election's October Surprise.
It could have been so different, if the tape hadn't surfaced and Trump hadn't gone on the offensive in a spectacularly counter-productive way, who knows where we would be now. The Wiki-leaks expose of the Clinton campaign's emails could easily have become a much bigger story, but the electorate hasn't reacted to deleted emails in the same way as they have to Trump's sensational comments.
October isn't over just yet so it would be a foolish person that makes cast-iron predictions and assumes the campaign is done and Clinton will undoubtedly win. Russians, Wiki-leaks, former lovers, or something completely unforeseen could overturn the received wisdom and the end of this election could end up as unpredictable as the last 18 months of campaign have already proved to be.
Mark Malcomson is Principal and CEO of City Lit, Europe's biggest adult education college. Mark teaches American politics and is starting a new course on the US elections on Thursday 20 October 2016 at City Lit in Covent Garden.
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