The October Surprise and the November Election

The October Surprise and the November Election

The October Surprise in 2010

At 4:22 p.m. on Friday, October 29, 2010, President Barack Obama stepped into the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House and announced some startling news: Two bombs, hidden inside printer cartridges, had been detected the previous day on a cargo plane heading from Dubai to Chicago.   

The detection was obviously good news–but did it really have to be news?  That is, wasn’t there much to be gained by staying mum on the news, with an eye to catching the culprits?  

Even if the bombs had not exploded as the terrorists had planned, there was no need to let them know that the plot had been foiled, as opposed to the bombs having merely malfunctioned.  In intelligence circles, this investigative process is called “walking back the cat”–that is, trying to reverse-engineer the process by which the security system was penetrated in the first place. And that reverse-engineering can best be done in secrecy, before the bomb-makers have a chance to scatter.  

But that’s not what happened. Here’s what the President said on that Friday afternoon two years ago: 

The American people should know that the counterterrorism professionals are taking this threat very seriously and are taking all necessary and prudent steps to ensure our security.  And the American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms.

Yes, it’s nice to know that a bomb was thwarted, but it would have been even nicer to know that the bomb-makers had been arrested or killed.  

So why didn’t the President wait until he had more good news?  What was the hurry on the announcement?   We might note that the October 29, 2010, announcement came just four days before the 2010 midterm elections.   And the President’s announcement was soon followed by five “readouts” of Obama conversations with the foreign leaders whose countries helped unravel the plot.    In other words, the Obama administration worked overtime to push its counter-terrorism news to the forefront, just just before the elections.  

The result was a decent-sized rally-’round-the-flag effect. After all, what could Republicans say? Who can be against good news in the war on terror? Perhaps the GOP could have made the point about premature release of sensitive information, but they would have risked looking churlish as a result.   

In any case, the impact on the 2010 elections was substantial.  According to the exit polls, a full nine percent of those voting on November 2 said that combating terror was the most important issue–and of that nine-percent slice of the electorate, the Democrats, boosted by the news of the cartridge bomb, won by double digits. That is, even as they were losing on just about every other issue, the Democrats won on terrorism.  The result was a lift for Congressional Democrats; they probably held on to an additional Senate seat or two, and perhaps also another half-dozen House seats.  

So we have to ask: Cui bono? Who benefited? If the answer is that the Democrats in Congress were the beneficiaries, then the finger of suspicion might point to Democratic politicos with access to security information. And so we can focus on Tom Donilon, whom I first met in 1976, during Jimmy Carter’s first presidential campaign. After a long career in the political vineyards–including some time spent plucking the juicy grapes at Fannie Mae–Donilon has now ended up as President Obama’s national security adviser. A political operative put in charge of national security might seem like a joke, but the real joke is on the American people, because no one ever doubted that Donilon would bring his political bag of tricks with him to the National Security Council. And as I have noted here at in the past, those damaging leaks in the summer of 2012–damaging to the country, but helpful to Obama–seem to have Donilon’s fingerprints all over them.  

The October Surprise in US History

“October Surprises,” real and imagined, have been recurrent in US political history. The term can be thought of two ways: First, it is the simple reality that the unexpected “black swan” can emerge at any time, including on the eve of an election. Second, there’s the more nefarious idea that an incumbent could use the power of his office to affect the election. And such possible abuse by an incumbent has provoked challengers in elections to use the October Surprise phrase preemptively, as a way of warning voters to discount some last-minute bombshell.  

As we can see, each Surprise is different.   

In 1956, we saw two October Surprises–the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. The incumbent US President, Dwight Eisenhower, was innocent of any manipulation, but he nonetheless benefited. His sturdy image of peaceful resolve in the midst of crisis helped him to win a re-election that November by a 15-point margin, carrying 41 of 48 states.  

In 1968, in the midst of the worst fighting of the Vietnam War, the incumbent vice president, Hubert Humphrey, running for president in his own right against Richard Nixon–and way behind in the polls–knew that he needed to rally the peace vote.  So Humphrey helped to persuade president Lyndon Johnson, who had himself chosen to retire, to “pause” the bombing of North Vietnam. That pause came on October 31, just five days before the election; it was dubbed the “Halloween Peace.”   

As a result, Humphrey continued to narrow the gap between himself and Nixon. The result was a photo-finish; Humphrey, who had once been down by double digits, lost by just .7 percent.  

(It also should be noted that the October Surprise can cut both ways. As Seymour Hersh detailed in his 1983 book, The Price of Power, the Nixon campaign was working on its own kind of October Surprise: Hersh wrote that Henry Kissinger had worked with others to sabotage the Paris peace talks, preventing Humphrey from enjoying an additional fillip of good news on the peace front.)   

Yet if some events of October 1968 are still shrouded in mystery, the events of October 1972 are not.   And once again, a central actor was Kissinger, then the Nixon administration’s top diplomat.  On October 26, 1972, twelve days before the November 7 election, Kissinger announced, “Peace is at hand.”  Well, actually, peace was not at hand, but Kissinger’s hopeful words put another big knife into the candidacy of Nixon’s Democratic challenger–and my then-boss–George McGovern. 

Let’s fast forward, now, to 1992. On Friday, October 30, the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, announced the indictment of former Reagan defense secretary Caspar Weinberger for allegedly making “false statements” to investigators looking into scandal. Interestingly, Weinberger had been indicted in June of 1992, but the indictment had been thrown out in August. And so it was all the more curious that Weinberger was re-indicted just five days before Weinberger’s longtime colleague in the Reagan administration, President George H. W. Bush, faced the voters. Revealingly, that indictment, too, was tossed out, leaving one with the clear suspicion that Democratic partisans on Walsh’s staff–here’s looking at you, Jeffrey Toobin–were behind the serial indictments of a top Republican.  

In 2000, the October Surprise was actually a November surprise. On November 2, just before the news was about to break back in Maine, George W. Bush announced that a quarter-century before, he had been arrested for drunk driving near Kennebunkport. That last-minute revelation leaves us with wonder: How could the Bush people have ever persuaded themselves that such a juicy nugget would stay a secret? How could they have failed to put it out first, early on? Without a doubt, that discovery, late as it was, cost Bush a win in the popular vote that year, leaving him to eke his way to the presidency, thanks to the Electoral College. (As an aside, we can note that Obama learned that lesson: His youthful indiscretions were well all aired–albeit not much detailed–long before he sought the presidency.) 

Oh, did I leave out an October Surprise?  Maybe the one from 1980? The irony is that while 1980 is the election that gave the October Surprise term its popular currency, it’s also one October Surprise that never happened.   

As those of us of a certain age remember well, Iranian “students”–students who were encouraged by their government in Tehran then, and who grew up to dominate the Tehran government today–captured the US embassy on November 4, 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage. We might note that the embassy takeover occurred exactly one year before the next presidential election. And for that next year, Jimmy Carter worked feverishly to get the hostages home, even trying a military commando raid in April 1980.   

And yet as we counted down the months till the next election–Carter against Reagan–the Reaganites and the Republicans routinely declared that the Carter White House was plotting some sort of miraculous last-minute hostage release to sway the election. 

Well, the truth of the matter is that while Carter–and the rest of us–wanted to get the hostages home as soon as possible, Carter, honorable man that he was and is, never entertained any of deal that might prove deleterious to the long-run interests of the United States.   

I know this, because I was there. And that’s one reason why the hostages came home only after the 1980 election, after Carter had been defeated.    

The October Surprise in 2012

So now back to the present day, and to a much different Democrat in the White House, also battling for re-election.    

In the wee hours of October 21, we were greeted with this headline in the Obama administration’s favorite newspaper, The New York Times: “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks.”  

So could it be that the Obama administration policy of diplomacy and sanctions was working? That the Iranians were finally coming around? Or was it a merely another kind of sketchy October Surprise, in which the Obama administration cynically offered false hope to Americans that the Iranian nuclear standoff could be resolved without a war?     

Later that same day, the 21st, on “Meet the Press,” Sen. Rob Portman provided valuable context for the report, saying, “It sounds to me like it’s another national-security leak from the White House. They’ve done a lot of that.”  And speaking of Israel, which had been blindsided by the Times report, Portman continued, “The last thing we would want to do is abandon our allies in this, and to make it a one-on-one negotiation.”  

That’s the way to do it: Portman provided a narrative prism thorough which to view the Iran story.  In fact, within hours, both the Obama administration and the Iranian government had denied the story, and it has faded.

Inoculating Against the October Surprise 

Yet even without any breaking “news” from Iran the Iranian front, the prospect of an October surprise–or even a November surprise–is still very real. 

Here are some possible “surprises”:

First, the unemployment rate.  When the fall in the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent–below that resonant 8 percent threshold–was announced on October 5, many were incredulous that the weak US economy could produce such a robust jobs report.  Yet those who spoke out on the number were clobbered by the MSM; Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric, tweeted out his suspicion, and was promptly separated from his guest-writing gigs at Fortune magazine and Reuters. Indeed, the MSM were absolutely unanimous in their assurance that there was no way that the Obamans could have cooked the number, how professional was the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yada yada–even as reports of errors in that supposedly foolproof data-gathering process have piled up. So in their zealous defense of the bureaucracy, methinks that maybe the MSM doth protest too much.   

Meanwhile, the next unemployment number comes out on November 2, just four days before the election. So what new monstrosity of a number will the administration reveal?    

Second, Hurricane Sandy. If there’s ever a need for a reminder to us all that elections are unpredictable, this storm provides that reminder. Note to Obama: You are better off staying in the White House to manage the crisis; although, of course, in light of the way he has handled the Benghazi attacks, there’s not much reason to think that Obama will, in fact, stay near the White House to actually do his job.   

Third, the Obamans’ incredibly sophisticated ground game, which will help squeeze out perhaps an extra point through better get-out-the-vote. Or is it, in fact, a better ground game? Or could Romney’s surge in fervor give him the edge?      

In a close election, each of these three preceding “surprises” could possibly be decisive. But there’s one big October Surprise that truly turn the election into a victory for Obama–or a defeat for Obama.

Fourth, possible US military action against terrorists in Libya. We might first note that the entire Obama narrative on Libya has collapsed, leaving any Obama politico–including the totally political national security adviser, Tom Donilon–understandably desperate to do something to change the Libya story. 

To its eternal moral discredit, the MSM are still refusing to connect the dots on the Libya story. Whereas during Watergate or Iran-Contra, the MSM were eager to dig deep, as well as make speculative leaps as to administration culpability, in Benghazi-gate there is no similar interest; the big-gun investigative reporters–Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, Brian Ross–all seem to be sitting on the sidelines.   

Fortunately, thanks to other reporters, more interested in pursuing the story, as opposed to protecting the president, we now know, for example, that the doomed Americans on September 11 were fully aware that they were fighting organized terrorists and yet they got no help. And we further know–thanks to a six-weeks-too-late airing of “60 Minutes” video–that the very next day, September 12, Obama himself said that it had been a terrorist attack, and yet in the days to come, he changed his story, and CBS was happy to cover for him for more than a month.  

So with that kind of supportive press coverage, perhaps the administration will gamble on some sort of game-changer in Libya, confident that the MSM will not accuse the Obamans of October-Surprising.   

Could the administration find some last-minute target in Libya? Could it bomb a real terrorist target, that deserves bombing, or might it bomb some dubious target, just to make itself look tough? We might recall that in a desperate period of his presidency, Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of an aspirin factory in Sudan

As we have seen, in 2010, the administration was willing to make good use of national security leaks.  And as I have been saying for months, it’s been leaking in 2012, as well. In fact, to get a grip on the depths that the Obama administration is willing to plumb, it’s worth recalling what Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was willing to say at the time of the leaks over Stuxnet and the kill-Bin Laden mission. The leaking, she declared on June 6, has been “Very, very disturbing … It’s dismayed our allies. It puts American lives in jeopardy. It puts our nation’s security in jeopardy.” A few weeks later, she added, “I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.” After a fierce reaction inside the Democratic Party, Feinstein recanted her charge against the White House, although not the assertion, of course, that the leaks were harmful.   

So with Feinstein’s words–even if she was forced to take some of them back–in mind, we might consider the possibility that the Obamans might “wag the dog” in the last few days of this election campaign.   

Interestingly, the public seems appropriately suspicious of this administration’s motives. In September, Secure America Now, a group with which I am affiliated, asked voters in Florida the following question on an October Surprise:

Some people have speculated that if President Obama is in trouble in the polls in October, after three years of doing nothing regarding Iran, he may take military action to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and strengthen his poll ratings before the election.  If this happened, are you more likely to say: 1) The President did the right thing for the right reasons; or 2) The President was playing politics with an October Surprise just to get re-elected?  

Revealingly, just 30.4 percent of Americans responded that the President would have “done the right thing for the right reasons,” while a clear majority of Americans, 51.9 percent, responded that the President would have been “playing politics.”   

That was in September, about Iran. And yet now in late October, about Libya, we can fairly say that the same public cynicism could possibly apply.  But of course, public opinion if fluid: If the Obamans were to make a strong public relations case that a Libya strike was good idea, that could sway opinion.   

So Republicans need to be ready for this, and ready with a response. After all it, was the Reaganites who popularized the phrase “October Surprise” in 1980–when it wasn’t needed.  

And so now, in 2012, when it might well be needed, they need a plan for a dog-wagging “late hit” in 2012.   That is, if something big happens in the next few days, they need to provide the sort of context that Sen. Portman provided on the Iran-negotiations story. And they should start now.  

Unfortunately, no Republicans are providing an ongoing contextualizing of the Libya story as it might unfold.   To be sure, plenty of Republicans are faulting Obama’s handling of the issue–often in the most stinging terms–but they are playing the last game, not anticipating the next game. That is, they are not actively talking about a Libya “October Surprise,” as a way of preparing the public for what might happen.  

A few powerful voices in the media are providing that preparation. On October 22, for example, on Monday, The Wall Street Journal editorial page discounted the Times’ Iranian report and put all of Obama’s last-minute national-security ploys into a useful context: 

At last week’s debate, Mr. Obama got huffy and said he resented any implication by Mitt Romney that his Administration had played politics with national security with its misleading accounts of what happened in Benghazi. The real question is when has this Administration not tried to exploit national security for political advantage?

Bingo. The Journal asked the right question there: “When has this administration not tried to exploit national security for political advantage?”    

So now Republican politicians, too, need to do a lot more of this kind of contextualizing, so that if anything big happens in the next two weeks, the voters will see it as a last-minute ploy. 

If Mitt Romney, the Republicans, and their allies want to win this election, they will have to put the issue of an October Surprise into a persuasive narrative, as a way of inoculating themselves against whatever the Obamans might be able to do. After all, the cartridge bomber, all the other leaks, and now this latest report from the Times, all suggest that the Obama administration is quite capable–a better word than “capable” might be “eager”–to use national security variables for their partisan purposes.     

Unfortunately, Romney himself let the Libya issue drop in his third and last debate with Obama.  And now, this close to the election, neither Romney nor Ryan should be involved in any “October Surprise” discussion.  It’s just too dicey now. The articulation of the “October Surprise” scenario should be handled by respected Republicans, including Rob Portman, John McCain, and Lindsay Graham.  

Still, national security is an important issue in this campaign, down to the last moment of balloting. And so the Romney-Ryan campaign might wish to peruse a new video from Secure America Now,, reminding Americans what has happened in Libya and around he Middle East under Obama. The Republicans need to remind Americans that Obama has, indeed, failed on his constitutional oath to “preserve, protect, and defend.” 

And for that failure, the Obama-Biden ticket deserves to pay a heavy price.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.