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October surprises may not matter in the 2022 midterms

An elections expert explains whether they ever mattered at all.

Republican Senatorial candidate Herschel Walker is seen at a campaign event.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
Jonquilyn Hill is the host of The Weeds, Vox's podcast for politics and policy discussions. Prior to joining Vox she was a senior producer for WAMU and NPR’s 1A.

Reports that Republican candidate and former football star Herschel Walker paid for a former girlfriend’s abortion are the candidate’s latest headache in a tight Senate race in Georgia.

Already a candidate plagued with problems — from domestic violence allegations to a parade of policy gaffes — Walker could be particularly vulnerable to last-minute revelations. Scandals like these are also known as October surprises, given that they arise in the month ahead of Election Day.

According to David Greenberg — a professor of history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University — October surprises have lost their potency through the years. In what’s perhaps good news for Walker and his party, events that once would be described as an October surprise barely stay in the public consciousness at all.

On this week’s episode of The Weeds — Vox’s podcast for politics and policy discussions — Greenberg discusses the history of the term and some of the most notable October surprises in recent memory.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Jonquilyn Hill

What exactly is an October surprise?

David Greenberg

Originally, it meant a sort of calculated surprise that was deliberately released or made public in October, shortly before the election, in order to influence the outcome of the election. There is the further thought that this was something done by the rival campaign, maybe by the media, but really that there was a sort of deliberateness to it.

Nowadays, I think we’ve changed the meaning so that it means anything that comes up in October that’s a surprise. All kinds of things now get thrown into this basket and it’s lost a little bit of that original idea. The economy takes a turn for the worse. There’s a good jobs report, a bad job report, a good stock market day, bad day. Those things aren’t really what we meant by “October surprises.”

Jonquilyn Hill

Where did the term originate?

David Greenberg

The term goes back to the 1980 campaign. Jimmy Carter was the incumbent but was running a kind of uphill reelection battle against Ronald Reagan. And one of the many things bogging Carter down was all these American hostages who had been taken in Iran during the revolution and the overthrow of the Shah. It was actually a Reagan campaign official, Bill Casey, who implied there was going to be an October surprise: that Carter was somehow going to get the hostages freed in October in order to revive his sagging fortunes.

Jonquilyn Hill

Do we know if that made a difference in that election at all, or do we not have the data to tell?

David Greenberg

You know, Reagan won by a lot in 1980, and there were many reasons why people were unhappy with Carter. I think most analysts would agree that his poor foreign policy overall, including his inability to get those hostages out over such a long period of time, really hurt him.

Whether the expectation and then the dashed hope of an October release was a particular factor, I think is less significant. Had he been able to get them released, I suppose it’s conceivable he might have seen a different outcome. 1980 was a pretty big victory, if not an actual landslide for Reagan. There’s many causes. And one thing like that is usually not going to turn the outcome around.

Now, in the last several election cycles, most of them at the presidential level have been extremely close. We’ve also had a lot of extremely close state and local races. And so when it’s extremely close, it’s obviously much easier to suppose that one event could make the difference.

Probably listeners are thinking about 2016.

Jonquilyn Hill

Access Hollywood.

David Greenberg

Yeah. You had two events that really were called October surprise. First, the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump on video saying these crude things about women. A lot of people really thought that’s going to finish him off. He was behind in the polls already, but they thought that was really the death knell. So that got labeled an October surprise.

Then a couple of weeks later, those notorious emails. That’s one where I think there is a plausible case that it did make the difference, because clearly, had the election of 2016 been held in mid-October, Hillary [Clinton] would have won. I mean, all the evidence suggests she was up in the polls as much as 11 points. There were people who in the last couple of weeks of the campaign changed their mind and moved from the Hillary camp to leaning Trump.

Jonquilyn Hill

Does the fact that these things happen and they kind of don’t stay in the consciousness that long say anything about where we are in our politics?

David Greenberg

I think it does. And I think in a way, there’s [a few] slightly different phenomena that coincide.

One is the sense of a short attention span and a rapid news cycle so that things don’t linger and we just move on to new issues. I remember more than a year ago the Biden administration’s troubles over the Afghanistan withdrawal. At the time, people spoke very earnestly about the serious political consequences and the electoral consequences that this would have.

So there’s the sense of time. But then there’s also kind of that super Teflon quality that Trump in particular seems to have. And I think with Trump, people didn’t expect exemplary moral or ethical behavior from him.

And then, of course, the other thing is we’ve become so polarized and partisan that lots of people do actually find some of these things objectionable, but they find the other party so intolerable that they’re willing to forgive a great deal on their own side. And under those conditions, being high-minded and quarreling with some flaws of your nominee seems shortsighted. So if you really think everything is at stake and we cannot let the other party take the White House, well, it stands to reason that you would forgive a lot.

Jonquilyn Hill

Do you see a pattern with the scandals that rise to the top? I’m thinking of Iran back in 1980, but now this with Herschel Walker and abortion.

David Greenberg

There tends to be a correlation between the issues that really blow up and issues that are already important for other reasons. If we had not just seen Roe v. Wade overturned early this summer then maybe this story about Walker would not be quite as big a deal.

When something is the No. 1 issue and then there’s a scandal or a bombshell that relates to that subject, I think it’s much more likely to command our attention than if it has to do with something that seems to be trivial or off-topic.

For more, find The Weeds on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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