1. The October Surprise
Remember the “October Surprise”? I sure do. Back in the 1980 presidential campaign, the October Surprise was the rumor that the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, vexed as he was by the Iranian hostage crisis, would pull off some shocking ploy—such as gaining the sudden release of the hostages—as a way of winning that year’s November election. That October Surprise never happened, of course, and maybe we’ll never really know if it was ever anything more than a figment of someone’s imagination.
And yet as we all do know, in that year, 1980, it was Ronald Reagan, not Carter, who triumphed. In fact, Reagan won in a landslide. Still, the notion of some big game-changer happening in October has reverberated in every presidential election since.
This year, 2016, October has only just begun, and so we don’t yet know what shockeroo might be in store for us. Yet it’s a cinch that something surprising will happen, because, well, that’s the way the world works. Indeed, just on Monday morning, we got an ominous indicator of what could be in the offing; the Iranians fired two missiles at a U.S. ship off the coast of Yemen in the Middle East. (The missiles missed, and there were no American casualties).
Of course, we already know that on October 4, to the surprise of the pundits Mike Pence clearly won his vice presidential debate against Tim Kaine. Yes, as we all saw, Pence was calm and cool, while Kaine was overcaffeinated and overheated. And we also know that in the second presidential debate on October 10, Donald Trump put the hammer down on Hillary Clinton—“You should be ashamed of yourself; you should be in jail.” It’s fair to say that the political class didn’t see either of those events coming; those two victories in the debates were, yes, October surprises.
Looking ahead a month to Election Day, November 8, one hesitates to make any sort of prediction; after all, the news cycle—in reality, a continuous news stream—is so fast and furious now that who can say what impressions the voters will have in their heads as they go to the polls. So instead, one must settle for piecing together clues and portents. And I will say this: The parallels between 1980 and 2016 are strong.
Indeed, I have particularly sharp recollections of the 1980 presidential election, because I was there: I was a twenty-something peon in the policy operation at the Reagan headquarters, first known as Reagan for President in Los Angeles, and later, in Arlington, VA, as the Reagan-Bush campaign.
To be sure, my duties were humble; mostly, I answered letters and helped fill out questionnaires, along with making frequent runs to the library—because that’s what you had to do back then to check facts in the pre-Internet era. (One of my missions was a trip to the Library of Congress to gather material on the legal power of the president to unilaterally impose wage-and-price controls: Yes, the theory that Carter would suddenly announce a drastic governmental response to the double-digit inflation of that era was yet another rumored “October Surprise.”)
2. “Change” vs. “More of the Same.”
We might consider: In that long-ago national contest, the two main choices were Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan. And as in all elections, the big question was whether the voters wanted “change,” or “more of the same.”
In elections, as we know, sometimes “change” wins, sometimes “more of the same” wins—that’s up to the voters. In that long-ago year, of course, “change” emerged triumphant—although, as we shall see, it was touch-and-go almost right up till Election Day.
Carter, of course, was in the White House, and so he had the advantage of incumbency. That is, he had the national megaphone, as well as all the trappings of presidential prestige. Yet Carter also had the disadvantage of incumbency. That is, he had a record to defend, and it wasn’t pretty.
Still, at the beginning of the year, 1980, according to Gallup, Reagan was down by as much as 30 points. Indeed, the Gipper didn’t pull ahead until late October—and then he really surged, winning on November 4 by almost ten points, carrying 44 states.
So now to today: Hillary Clinton is the incumbent, and her record also isn’t pretty. Okay, strictly speaking, she isn’t the incumbent, but she might as well be; she’s an alumna of the Obama administration, and she has all of its top officials actively helping her, including the President, the First Lady, and the Vice President. Indeed, Barack Obama has said that he will consider it to be a personal insult to him if Trump wins.
In addition, of course, Hillary suffers from the accumulated weight of the Clinton presidency; indeed, the 42nd president himself has never left the national stage. And while in the minds of some, Bill Clinton’s presence is an asset, that was before he called Obamacare “the craziest thing in the world,” and before the Trump campaign brought some of his past sexual victims to St. Louis for a pre-debate panel discussion.
To be sure, the MSM did its best to ignore Clinton victims—in keeping with its see-no-evil approach of the last quarter-century. Yet the Trump campaign was able to bypass the MSM filter by “broadcasting” the poignant event, along with interviews, through the new online media. So we can see: Only now is Bill Clinton getting the payback he has always deserved. And to the extent that Hillary was, and is, his enabler and co-conspirator, she, too, is getting her just desserts.
In the meantime, down below the commanding heights, out there in Flyover Country, everyone knows about the stagnating economy, as well as the foreign policy challenges and debacles that worsened during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. Moreover, there’s the recent spike in terrorism and violence in New York, Charlotte, Dallas, Baton Rouge—and, of course, the steady flow of blood gushing in just about every big city.
So it’s little wonder that a CBS News poll from mid-September found that 55 percent of Americans want “big changes,” while 43 percent want “some changes”; just two percent think things are fine the way they are. We need hardly add the observation: If 98 percent of the voters are favoring “change,” it will be hard for this not to be a “change” election.
Then the CBS poll asked: Which candidate can be trusted to change Washington? The answer: 47 percent trust Trump to do it, 20 percent trust Clinton to do it. In other words, Trump owns the “change” issue by a whopping 27-point margin. In a “change” year, that’s the stuff of landslides—as was 1980.
So today, when I see the polls showing Trump behind, I just smile: If the voters mean it when they say that they want change, well, then, they will get change—whether or not the pollsters can see it coming.
Meanwhile, the larger context of the times back then argued strongly for change—drastic change. At home, we were suffering from severe inflation and rising unemployment. At the same time, abroad, the Carter administration suffered the daily indignity of the Iranian hostage crisis. And elsewhere, Carter haplessly confronted the strategic challenges of the Soviet-aided communist victory in Nicaragua and the Russians’ outright invasion of Afghanistan.
So it was little wonder that, according to a Gallup poll, satisfaction with the condition of the country hit a rock-bottom 12 percent in the summer of 1979, and it stayed down in the teens all through 1980.
Yet for all that dissatisfaction, for almost the whole of 1980, it was no certainty that the voters would choose Reagan over Carter. After all, much like Trump today, Reagan was loathed by the media, and that depressed his numbers—or so we thought.
3. The Media vs. Republicans: The Song Remains the Same
Moreover, back then, there was no alternative media, and so what we now think of as the Main Stream Media was just…the media. You know, as in the broadcast networks, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. These outlets might not seem that important today—it’s perfectly possible to get all the news one wants without ever visiting a legacy site, and the LA Times is one of many newspapers to have gone through bankruptcy—and yet in those days, the longstanding media outlets were seemingly all-powerful.
So on every morning at Reagan campaign HQ, top people had already read a hard-copy version of The New York Times or The Washington Post; a little later, the same people would receive the clips—a thick batch of photocopies of news articles mailed or faxed from around the country. And at 6:30 pm, and again at 7 pm, everything would stop, because we all had to see how the campaign was playing on the nightly newscasts, which in those days were watched by most of the country.
Of course, we usually gritted our teeth as we watched, because the TV reporters, like the print reporters, despised Reagan; almost all of them regarded him as a crazy, maybe even senile, cowboy who would get us not only into a depression, but also into World War Three. (Carter, in their mind, was a well-intentioned failure; that was hardly a ringing endorsement, to be sure, but in the journalistic mind, Carter’s weakness paled compared to Reagan’s menace.)
So with Reagan being savaged every morning and every evening, it wasn’t surprising that our polling was dismal. A Gallup Poll from early January, for example, showed Carter leading Reagan by a nearly two-to-one margin, 62 percent to 33 percent.
That was the paradox: The American people knew that things were going badly, but the media kept insisting that there was no alternative other than to vote for Carter.
4. Third Parties, and Fourth Parties
Yet then an alternative that the media deemed to be plausible did emerge. That was Rep. John B. Anderson (R-IL). Anderson had run a quixotic campaign in the ’80 GOP primaries as a tax-increasing, arms-controlling liberal. He didn’t win a single Republican primary, and yet the media fell in love with him, loving him all the more when he devoted himself entirely to bashing Reagan and the GOP.
And so, riding that wave of media enthusiasm, Anderson abandoned the Republicans and opted for an independent run for the White House. In fact, mindful of his new political base, he positioned himself to the left of not only Reagan, but also of Carter. And for a while, it was working for him; according to Gallup, he reached 24 percent in June.
Yet once the media realized that Anderson, by now a leftist, was drawing more votes away from Carter than from Reagan, most reporters turned against him. And so then, deprived of his media halo, he slid down to less than seven percent on Election Day.
Looking back at the Anderson boomlet, we can see what was happening in the electorate: Many Republicans, or Republican-leaning independents, were leery of voting for Reagan, and so they “parked” themselves with Anderson as they evaluated the two major-party candidates more closely. And then, in the end, a lot of them did vote for Reagan.
So in a way, the Anderson surge in ’80 was a precursor of what we’re seeing this year. In 2016, the role of Anderson is being played, in effect, by two other liberal Republicans, former governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico and former governor Bill Weld of Massachusetts. Strictly speaking, Johnson and Weld are the Libertarian Party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees, but they have scored well—as high as 12 percent in some polls—because they have served as a “safe haven” for many Republicans who dislike Trump and yet can’t bring themselves to support Hillary.
Weld, in particular, cuts a distinctly John Anderson-type profile; that is, he is a Republican deeply opposed to the dominant conservative faction. And as for Johnson, he himself was mostly a conservative when holding office in the 90s; and yet since then, he has chosen to focus his post-gubernatorial career, as well as his ’16 campaign, on the legalization and mass-marketing of marijuana. Thus in the context of today, both Weld and Johnson are firmly on the John Anderson-type left.
Indeed, as with Anderson in 1980, that’s probably why the Libertarian ticket is suddenly receiving so much criticism; the MSM has figured out that these third-partiers are draining more votes from the Democrat than the Republican. Can’t have that! And since Anderson then, and Johnson today, have been mostly media creations, it’s little surprise that as their media support ebbs, so, too, does their political support.
5. Four More Years? Really??
Meanwhile, back in 1980, the big issue was the condition of the country. On July 17, in his acceptance speech to the Republican national convention in Detroit, Reagan finally had his opportunity to speak to the bulk of the American electorate, unfiltered by the media. And in the course of making his overall case for change, he deftly jabbed at Carter:
Can anyone look at the record of this administration and say, “Well done?” Can anyone compare the state of our economy when the Carter Administration took office with where we are today and say, “Keep up the good work?” Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today and say, “Let’s have four more years of this?”
Thus with the whole country watching, Reagan framed the key issue: Carter equaled “more of the same”; Reagan equaled “change.”
For his part, Carter had no new ideas for the future; he was truly the more-of-the-same candidate. In addition, he didn’t have much of a record to run on, and he knew that, too. So his plan, instead, was to demolish Reagan—just as Hillary today is attempting to demolish Trump. In his August 14, 1980 acceptance speech to the Democratic national convention in New York, Carter ripped into his challenger and all Republicans:
In their fantasy America, all problems have simple solutions—simple and wrong. It’s a make-believe world, a world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later. No hard choices, no sacrifice, no tough decisions—it sounds too good to be true, and it is.
For a while, this strategy of ripping up Reagan appeared to be working. Gallup records that in early August, Carter was ahead of Reagan by sixteen points, 45:29. For purposes of comparison, we can note that on August 9 of this year, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Clinton was ten points ahead of Trump.
Yet back in 1980, for all the reasons noted, the country wanted change. And so by mid-August, Reagan had pulled to within a single point of Carter, and the two candidates stayed neck-and-neck all through September.
So if we might skip ahead 36 years, that’s almost exactly where we are today: According to the RealClearPolitics average, as of October 10, Clinton is 4.5 points ahead of Trump in the four-way race. So we might recall: Clinton is almost exactly where Carter was at this time, 36 years ago.
6. When Democrats Attack
Meanwhile, back in 1980, Carter chose to intensify his fusillade against Reagan: On October 6, he declared that a Reagan victory would fracture the country; speaking in Michigan, he told the voters,
You’ll determine whether or not this America will be unified, or if I lose this election whether America might be separated—black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban.
Here we might pause to observe that it might seem, well, unseemly for the incumbent to do nothing but attack the challenger. And yet that was what Carter chose to do; he obviously had no confidence in the political viability of his own record. And in fact, for a while, Carter’s attack-attack-attack plan seemed to be working; by mid-October, the Georgian had pulled ahead— according to Gallup, he was now up by five points.
Then, on October 28, came the lone Carter-Reagan debate. To read the transcript, one might think that Carter performed well. Here’s a typical passage, from the well-briefed and highly detail-oriented Carter:
We now are planning to continue the revitalization program with increased commitments of rapid transit, mass transit. Under the windfall profits tax, we expect to spend about $43 billion in the next 10 years to rebuild the transportation systems of our country. We also are pursuing housing programs. We’ve had a 73 percent increase in the allotment of Federal funds for improved education. These are the kinds of efforts worked on a joint basis with community leaders, particularly in the minority areas of the central cities that have been deteriorating so rapidly in the past.
Note not only the farrago of statistics, but also the systematic base-touching: “mass transit,” “housing programs,” “improved education,” “community leaders, particularly in the minority areas of the central cities.” (Carter didn’t stop to explain why it was that those minority areas were “deteriorating so rapidly” during his presidency—in the same way that Hillary today doesn’t acknowledge the recent worsening of urban conditions under the policies that she not only favors, but wishes to accelerate.)
For his part, in the same debate, Reagan made an entirely different sort of argument. He wasn’t interested in piling up data points; instead, he was interested in changing the country:
I believe the Presidency is what Teddy Roosevelt said it was. It’s a bully pulpit. And I think that something can be done from there, because a goal for all of us should be that one day, things will be done neither because of nor in spite of any of the differences between us—ethnic differences or racial differences, whatever they may be—that we will have total equal opportunity for all people. And I would do everything I could in my power to bring that about.
Yet Carter had his nuke-Reagan plan all laid out, and he kept at it throughout the debate. The 39th president relentlessly zeroed in on perceived Reagan weaknesses, hoping to catch the Republican in some nitpicky error. And that’s when Reagan responded with his famous retort, “There you go again.” With those four words, combining humor and dismissiveness, Reagan stamped Carter as what he was—a small-minded factoid-monger filling out the remaining days of his failed presidency.
Later that night, Democratic spin doctors—in and out of the media—didn’t want to admit it, but everyone knew that Reagan had won the debate. Yes, Carter had spewed out his almanac of trivia, but even he couldn’t make his record in the White House look good.
In other words, Reagan had gone toe-to-toe with the President of the United States and emerged not only as a plausible commander-in-chief, but also as, definitely, the more likable man. And so that’s when the dynamic of a “change” election really kicked in: The dam broke, as voters who had been reluctant to commit now sluiced into Reagan’s reservoir.
The last Gallup poll of the 1980 campaign showed Reagan up three points, 47:44; although as noted earlier, he ended up winning by ten points. To put that another way, although Gallup called the election correctly, it was still off by seven points—and that’s something to keep in mind as the 2016 election nears.
Meanwhile, according to the current-day reminiscences of Marc Rotterman, a fellow Reagan campaigner that year, “Back in 1980, we had a president who had a complete disconnect from the country.” Rotterman recently gave this pithy encapsulation of Carter:
He had no understanding of what it would take to move the country forward. Most Americans thought that their personal situation would get worse with another four years of Carter—and so they voted for our guy.
Then Rotterman, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has carved out a long career in Republican political consulting, mostly in the Tarheel State, added a direct warning to Democrats about the current rioting in Charlotte, underscoring the importance of the “change” theme: “Law and order is going to be a key component of this election, and that spells trouble for Clinton and the Democrats.” To put that another way: Will the Democrats be the party of “more of the same” when it comes to disorder and terror? If so, that looks like a political loser.
7. The Choice
Indeed, we can all step back and ask: This November, will the country vote to renew its commitment to the sort of laxity that enables foreign terrorists to enter the country, even as others take to the streets to loot and burn? If the voters do reward chaos, it will contradict all historical precedent.
That’s the challenge to Hillary: Like Carter before her, she knows better than to run on overt “four more years” agenda, and so, instead, she figures that she must knock Trump out of the box with negative attacks—and coordinate her barrage, of course, with the MSM.
And in defense of her tactics, we might ask: What else can she do? She is trying, of course, to run on the Obama record—offering her presidency, in effect, as his third term. But does that really seem like a winning message?
However, she can’t run on her record, because, as Trump says to great effect, her 30 years in public life about to “all talk, no action.”
And she can’t run on Bill Clinton’s record for many reasons, starting with the fact the trade deals he championed are now in disrepute, and ending, as we have seen, with the sudden re-emergence of his own past sexual indiscretions—and have we mentioned the Clinton Foundation?
Finally, she can’t run on the Democratic platform published in Philadelphia; that was the most left-wing major-party platform in history—does she really want to get into a discussion of open borders in a time such as this?
No, not a one of those options are attractive for her. Thus she is left with just one last option—attack.
Happily for Hillary’s mindset, the first-strike-on-Trump plan fits with her own personal needs; she seems to have worked up a strong personal hatred for the New Yorker. In fact, as we all know, Hillary has extended her contempt for Trump to contempt for his supporters—all those “deplorables.”
Indeed, her fast-multiplying hatreds seems to have, well, made her a bit crazy, or at least crazed-looking. On September 21, The Drudge Report linked to a Washington Post story on a Hillary campaign video with the headline, “Manic.” Yes, manic is a good word to describe her demeanor in that video. And that particular story, by the way, was headlined, “Clinton asks why she isn’t beating Trump by 50 points.” Yes, she really said it: “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” In other words, Hillary is visibly exasperated at the thought of having a close contest with Trump; this hasn’t been the cakewalk that her advisers promised her. (We might also recall that an earlier set of advisers had promised her a cakewalk in 2008.)
Yet we might pause to note that the largest presidential landslide in American history, in 1920, was 26 points, or barely more than half of the victory margin that Hillary has been hoping for.
And so we’re left to contemplate, with mind-boggled awe, Hillary’s soaring sense of entitlement. It’s one thing that she would think that she deserves to win by 50 points; it’s quite another to say it out loud in an official campaign video. Thus we all can gain a clue about the nature of the cocoon in which she has been living—it’s a cocoon with thick walls. And we can surmise: No wonder she didn’t think that U.S. government rules about e-mail, or foundation ethics, or Benghazi truth-telling, applied to her.
So now our comparison of 1980 and 2016 must end—we have to let the election play out. Quite possibly, just as was the lone Carter-Reagan presidential debate in ‘80, the next Clinton-Trump debate, to be held on October 19, will be decisive. Yes, Trump is behind, but as we have seen, in a “change” year, if the challenger can make himself seem acceptable to undecided voters, then the tide of change will sweep him into the White House.
And we also know this: Since Hillary can’t run on her record, can’t run on her vision for the future, and certainly can’t run on her own personal probity, then, like Carter before her, she has only one choice: Attack. That’s what she did Sunday night in St. Louis, that’s what all her campaign surrogates are doing and will be doing, and, of course, that’s what the MSM is and will be doing.
Yes, it’s a big gamble for Clinton. Despite her best efforts to tear him down—and in spite of some self-inflicted wounds—Trump is still standing. That is, it’s not so clear that her billions of dollars’ worth of anti-Trump messaging is having the desired effect. But then, as we have seen, there’s nothing else she can do. So it’s double-down time: attack, attack, attack.
So it’s fitting that the October 19 debate will be held in Las Vegas. Hillary may seem like the front runner, but the winds of change are blowing against her, hard. So she will need all the luck she can get, because even if the Clinton campaign has become utterly predictable, the voters are rarely predictable—they can always pull a November Surprise.