The Republican candidate and former football star reports that Herschel Walker paid for abortion ex-girlfriend are the candidate’s latest headache in a tight senate race in Georgia.
Already a candidate plagued with problems — from allegations of domestic violence for a parade of policy blunders – Walker could be particularly vulnerable to last minute disclosures. Such scandals are also known as October surprises, as they occur in the month leading up to Election Day.
According to David Greenberg – a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University – October’s surprises have lost their power over the years. In what may be good news for Walker and his party, events that would once be described as a surprise in October barely remain in the public consciousness.
In this week’s episode the weed — cafemadrid’s Podcast for Politics and Policy Discussions — Greenberg discusses the history of the term and some of the most notable October surprises in recent history.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What exactly is an October surprise?
Originally, it meant a kind of calculated surprise that was deliberately released or made public in October, shortly before the election, to influence the outcome of the election. Furthermore, there’s the thought that this was something that was done by the rival campaign, maybe by the media, but it was really some sort of set up.
Today, I think we’ve changed the meaning so that it means that everything that comes out in October is a surprise. All sorts of things are thrown into this basket now and it’s lost a bit of that original idea. The economy is declining. There’s a good jobs report, a bad jobs report, a good stock market day, a bad day. Those things aren’t really what we meant by “October surprises.”
Where did the term originate?
The term dates back to the 1980 campaign. Jimmy Carter was the incumbent, but fought a sort of tough reelection battle against Ronald Reagan. And one of the many things that confused Carter was all those American hostages captured in Iran during the revolution and the overthrow of the Shah. It was actually a Reagan campaign official, Bill Casey, who suggested there would be a surprise in October: that Carter would somehow free the hostages in October to reinvigorate his dwindling fortunes.
Do we know if that made a difference in that election, or do we not have the data to tell?
You know, Reagan won a lot in 1980, and there were a lot of reasons people were unhappy with Carter. I think most analysts would agree that his poor foreign policy in general, including his inability to get those hostages out for such a long period of time, really hurt him.
Whether the expectation and then the faded hope of an October release was a factor, I think is less important. If he could have released them, I think it is conceivable that he would have seen a different outcome. 1980 was a pretty big win, if not a real landslide for Reagan. There are many causes. And that usually won’t change the outcome.
Now, in the last few election cycles, most of them have been extremely close at the presidential level. We’ve also had a lot of extremely close state and local races. And so, of course, if it’s extremely close, it’s much easier to assume that one event could make all the difference.
Probably listeners are thinking of 2016.
Admission to Hollywood.
Yes. You had two events that were actually called October surprise. First the Admission to Hollywood tape of Donald Trump on video saying these gross things about women. A lot of people really thought this would finish him off. He was already trailing in the polls, but they thought that was really the death knell. So that was labeled an October surprise.
A few weeks later, those infamous emails. That’s one that I think there’s a plausible case that made a difference, because obviously, if the 2016 election had been held in mid-October, Hillary [Clinton] would have won. I mean, all the evidence suggests she was a whopping 11 points higher in the polls. There were people who changed their minds in the last few weeks of the campaign and moved from the Hillary camp to the leaning Trump.
Does the fact that these things happen and they don’t stay in the consciousness for that long say anything about where we stand in our politics?
I think so. And I think in a way there is [a few] slightly different phenomena that coincide.
One is the sense of short attention span and fast news cycle so that things don’t get stuck and we just move on to new problems. I remember more than a year ago the problems of the Biden administration over the withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the time, people spoke very seriously about the serious political and electoral consequences this would have.
So there is the sense of time. But then there is also a kind of super Teflon quality that especially Trump seems to have. And I think people with Trump didn’t expect exemplary moral or ethical behavior from him.
And then, of course, the other thing is that we’ve become so polarized and partisan that a lot of people find some of these things objectionable, but they find the other side so unbearable that they’re willing to forgive a lot on their own side. And under those circumstances, being haughty and arguing with some of your nominee’s flaws seems short-sighted. So if you really think everything is at stake and we can’t let the other side take the White House, then obviously you’d forgive a lot.
Do you see a pattern with the scandals rising to the top? I’m thinking of Iran in 1980, but now this with Herschel Walker and abortion.
There is usually a connection between the problems that really get out of hand and the problems that are already important for other reasons. If we hadn’t just seen Roe v. Wade destroyed early this summer, maybe this Walker story wouldn’t be such a big deal.
If something is the #1 issue and there’s a scandal or a bombshell related to that topic, I think it’s much more likely to grab our attention than if it’s dealing with something that seems trivial or off-topic.