Reflecting on 2018’s “October Surprises”


American politics are unique, and not in a good way. Anyone who spends time studying our electoral process and how we choose to conduct our elections will quickly find that there are many facets of our system which are the way that they are simply because that’s the way things are. This resistance to new and changing ideas about how democratic elections should be conducted has led to numerous idiosyncratic tendencies and concepts that are unique to American politics, such as the electoral college, the two-party system itself and the system of legalized bribery we have that passes for campaign finance.

These are mostly nonexistent in other developed democracies. It doesn’t help that the Founding Fathers literally wrote the Constitution with the purpose of stifling efforts at popular reform, but I digress.

One such anomaly of the American political process is the concept of an “October Surprise.” This basically applies to any major political or media-driven event in the month leading up to a national election that has the power to potentially alter the outcome of said election. Famous examples from history include Nixon’s fake peace agreement with Vietnam in 1972, the Iran-Contra indictments that contributed to Bush’s loss in 1992 and Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” tape in 2012. One could also point to the letter that James Comey sent to Congress weeks before the 2016 election which significantly dampened Hillary’s already dismal approval rating. All of these events were unforeseeable by the general public and likely had significant impacts on the election results—though not all necessarily altered the outcome.

In 2018, there were at least two events that happened leading up to election day that I would classify as October Surprises: the Kavanaugh hearing, and the caravan.

The Kavanaugh hearing, while a loss for the country, succeeded in shifting the political discourse of races around the country from larger issues like healthcare, education and the economy, to cultural issues like abortion, sexual assault and the role of women in society.

Although it served as yet another episode in the #MeToo movement, women and allied voters who lean democratic and who would’ve been motivated by this were already extremely enthusiastic for the midterms.

However, I would argue this shifting of focus towards cultural issues which typically motivates GOP base voters did just that, and at the very least reduced the numerical and enthusiasm advantage the Democrats had headed into the final stretches of the election. It seems to me that the Republicans should nominate alleged sexual predators at every chance they get since their voters don’t seem to care (remember “Grab ‘em by the pussy”?).
The caravan was also clearly a win for the GOP, but unlike the Kavanaugh debacle—which at least was a relevant event that deserved people’s attention—the caravan was clearly a total farce invented by Trump to further drive Republican base turnout. It was 100 percent enabled by corporate media. Not only was the caravan thousands of miles from the U.S. border when Trump began talking about it, but it was also still thousands of miles from the border when he sent troops there. On top of that, he and nearly everyone in the media stopped talking about it literally the day after the election. If that doesn’t make it as clear as day that it wasn’t actually a real issue and was just a talking point manufactured for cynical political purposes, I don’t know what would.

Just because the troops were willing to spend Thanksgiving in the desert, that doesn’t mean they should’ve had to because their commander-in-chief had no qualms with wasting tax dollars and separating them from their families. All to stoke more fear and division before an election.

Obviously, stuff happening right before an election isn’t unique to the U.S., but the notion of an “October Surprise” is because of the failure of the media to do accurate, issue-oriented journalism. As 2018 showed us, politicians have learned they can manipulate the media to totally shift the narrative surrounding an election as long as they’re willing to abandon all principle and integrity. My advice: vote 100 percent of the time, but never, ever take what the media or the candidates are saying at face-value.