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11:11 3 November 2016

OPINION: Presidential History of "October Surprises"

By Joshua Dupuy
TOKYO, Nov. 3, Kyodo

In order to secure the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will need to secure 270 of the 538 Electoral College votes to win the presidency.

This year's election between Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton began, at best, as an unpopularity contest, with Clinton's unfavorable ratings shielded only by Mr. Trump's unique blend of misogyny, anti-globalization and a masterclass in bluster and arrogance that has confounded American allies and delighted foes. Many would like it to end.

At a recent dinner for the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation in New York, Hillary Clinton, referring to her critics, joked: "They think I only say what people want to hear. Well, tonight, that is true. And here's exactly what you want to hear-this election will be over very, very soon."

Not so fast. With the election staggering toward the finish line, we have found an old friend of political high drama to join the home stretch: the October Surprise.

The most recent October Surprise is courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director, James Comey, who sent a letter to Congress to "supplement" the testimony he gave in July about the Bureau's investigation into Clinton's private email server, where no charges were brought.

This last-minute intervention, despite not knowing the relevance of the emails, is a reckless action less than two weeks prior to the U.S. presidential election. It is at odds with established Justice Department policy not to take investigative actions close to an election that could potentially influence the outcome. But history is riddled with October Surprises, some of which may or may not have had an impact. Here is a look at the top six:

1800: John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson

After serving as vice president to George Washington for eight years, John Adams was elected president in his own right, defeating Thomas Jefferson in 1796 with 71 Electoral College votes to Jefferson's 68. In the 1800 election rematch, President Adams was attacked late in the campaign by his Federalist party "ally" Alexander Hamilton, who published a scathing 54-page letter against him, citing his "ungovernable temper." Adams would go on to lose re-election to Vice President Jefferson by a narrow margin.

1912: William Howard Taft vs. Theodore Roosevelt vs. Woodrow Wilson

Nobody takes a bullet like the indomitable Teddy Roosevelt. On Oct. 14, 1912, an unemployed saloonkeeper shot the former president just prior to a speech. Luckily for TR, the bullet struck his 50-page remarks, likely saving his life. He then spoke for 90 minutes. Unfortunately for the former president, his third-party Progressive platform split the Republican vote and allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to claim the presidency.

1972: Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern

Fifty years later, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's national security advisor, announced that after years of frustrating conflict in Vietnam: "We believe that peace is at hand," with only days needed to bring the war to an end. Kissinger's remarks were made on Oct. 26, 1972. The war ended in April 1975, but Nixon won in a landslide, winning 520 Electoral College votes to George McGovern's 17.

1980: Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan

This is the October surprise that wasn't. Theories abounded that President Carter would secure the release of American hostages held in Iran prior to the elections to secure victory and vice versa. In then end, the hostages were released after the election and during Reagan's oath of office.

2000: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore

Stretching the theory of an October surprise, this November surprise may have played a part in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. On Nov. 2, 2000, five days before the election, news broke that George Bush had been arrested for drunk-driving in 1976. Though it did not cost Bush the election, it took a 5-4 Supreme Court vote to get to 271 Electoral College votes and the White House. He lost the popular vote to Gore by 500,000 votes.

2016: Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump

Condemnation of Director Comey's letter has been swift and widespread. But the current race for the White House has given us a veritable smorgasbord of October Surprises. It was only in early October when The New York Times provided a blistering account illustrating how Mr. Trump claimed a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax return, leading to subsequent revelations that he spent many years not paying income tax.

That story quickly took second stage to a recording revealing lewd comments about women. This was swiftly followed by numerous allegations from women of unwanted sexual advances from Mr. Trump over the years.

Secretary Clinton has run a superior campaign and made a compelling case for the White House. She is eminently qualified to be elected the next president and this October Surprise is unlikely to change that trajectory, but it has made the path to 270 electoral votes a bit more elusive. Mr. Trump, for his part, has raised the prospect of a rigged election, of jailing his opponent and called into question the American tradition of a peaceful transition of power.

Never mind that in the election of 1800 John Adams' allies suggested that Vice President Thomas Jefferson had died prior to the election to improve his odds. Jefferson defeated his own boss, Adams, and assumed the nation's highest office. Peaceful transition was assured.

Two hundred and sixteen years later, if Secretary Clinton wins she will have a massive task of healing the divisiveness and rancor that have characterized this election. As Abraham Lincoln said: "Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters." In the end, victory in 2016 will boil down to voter turnout and a superior ground game. Here's to a November without blisters.

(Joshua Dupuy is an American lawyer and former U.S. Senate aide. He teaches global public policy at Temple University Japan in Tokyo, including a course on the U.S. presidency and elections)




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