Welcome to October of a presidential election year – time to be on the lookout for an “October surprise.” However, in 2020 one could argue that this traditionally anticipated and often feared cliché of a concept – a “surprise” powerful enough to change the outcome of a presidential election – is now outdated and incapable of changing hearts, minds, and votes.
But first, some definitions behind that theory, which posits that shortly before Election Day, God forbid, there is a catastrophic, history-changing, national or international event not intentionally perpetrated by either campaign. Such events could include a debilitating cyberattack; a natural disaster of biblical portions (even more than the current California wildfires, i.e., “the big one”); a nuclear bomb detonation or an attack on the scale of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor; the death of Donald Trump or Joe Biden, or a major health crisis that forces one of them to drop out of the race; a 2008-type financial meltdown; a zombie apocalypse; or something unimaginable.
Yet, even then, would there be a voting shift?
What follows are the reasons why an October surprise is as outdated as direct-mail solicitations.
Voters are numb to “surprises.”
We live in a nonstop, 24/7, breaking news environment where surprises are common, everyday occurrences. Thus, Americans are increasingly incapable of being surprised by political shenanigans. Moreover, behaviors that voters are willing to accept (if grudgingly) from leaders has significantly widened.
Voters are exhausted by all the 2020 calamities.
Given that a pandemic has unraveled every aspect of our economy, society, culture, and well-being, voters are battle weary. Therefore, an October surprise could be viewed as just one more thing piled on. After all, only 29.3% of Americans believe that our nation is heading in the right direction.
Increased early voting diminishes an October surprise.
“Fifty-two percent of adults say they will vote early — with 19 percent saying they will vote early in person and 33 percent more saying they will vote by mail. About a third of adults, 33 percent, say they will vote in person on Election Day, and 11 percent say they might not vote at all.”
Increased early voting is a phenomenon that radically changes the concept of Election Day and the prospects of an influential October surprise.
September was the new October.
The events of September could resonate like one big October surprise.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the naming of her replacement launched an epic culture-war battle that was long anticipated -- though NOT after early voting had begun. Talk about a “surprise” factor with vast potential: President Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, galvanizes both sides at the most critical time when all voters had started paying attention to the election and making plans to vote.
The same galvanization applies to the leaking of Trump’s 2016 and 2017 federal tax returns with the revelation that he only paid $750 in each of those years. This is a classic “October surprise” that Team Biden is using to amplify its ongoing strategic message of “Scranton vs. Park Avenue.” For Democrats in general, Trump’s “$750” is the perfect wedge issue that fits on a campaign button and crystallizes what they believe is his character as a corrupt businessman and failed president.
The question remains whether either of these September events will move the needle, given that 86% of voters had already made up their mind (and that was before Tuesday night’s debate)
And yes, that debate…
What could qualify as an October surprise is if Joe Biden decides to skip the next two debates. Watch RealClearPolitics upcoming poll averages for that answer. Biden may bow out if he thinks he is far enough ahead and does not need to participate in what was widely considered a national disgrace.
(What is clear is that with the advent of widespread early voting, the 2024 presidential debates should occur before that process commences.)
But October still is October.
Saying that the nation is a tinderbox is an understatement, with many unanswered questions hanging in the air.
Could there be legal maneuvering somewhere that could impact the election? (Akin to James Comey’s announcement in late October 2016 of a reopened Clinton email investigation, suggesting to some that he threw the election to Trump?)
Will former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale be accused of money laundering $170 million of campaign funds (possibly impacting late fundraising for Team Trump)?
Could the post office melt down from an avalanche of ballots?
Will Trump continue to denigrate the election process, causing further uncertainty among voters?
Will there be evidence of massive mail-in ballot fraud?
What percentage of mail-in ballots will be rejected in key battleground states?
Will our enemies perceive weakness and launch some aggressive action that requires a military response?
Will the Senate confirm Amy Comey Barrett just days before the election?
With October surprises always expected -- but not always what people expect -- can our nation survive through November without imploding?
The concept of a “traditional” October surprise could be outdated due to overall news numbing, early voting, and entrenched extreme polarization. For example, a devastating surprise came in 2000 when, just days before the election, a decades-old DUI charge against George W. Bush came to light. As Politico put it, “[Karl] Rove believes that without the DUI news, Bush would have won the popular vote, and the mess in Florida would have been avoided.”
But now, would a DUI charge or its equivalent even matter?
Still, there exists the potential for upheaval because, after all, it is 2020 and unfortunately, our nation is emotionally and financially depressed, locked and loaded, and expecting to fight for what is “right” and our “rights.”
Welcome to October, and God help our nation!