Washington Babylon — October 27, 2008, 3:25 pm

It’s October. Where’s Our Surprise?

mccain_nose-down

Barring a complete failure of polling and political punditry (not an impossibility, of course), the outcome seems clear: Barack Obama is going to win the election. Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, John McCain’s chances of winning are rated at about three percent. “By every metric, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign appears headed for the upper deck. Polls (both national and state-by-state), organization, money, and momentum are all running strongly in Obama’s favor,” Charlie Cook wrote over the weekend. “Certainly, the 2008 presidential contest could reverse direction and result in victory for John McCain. But at this point, he would have to be the beneficiary of something quite dramatic for that to happen.”

Which leads, of course, to speculation on the legendary “October surprise.” Is one coming? Not likely. But rather than checking and rechecking the polls in battleground states, let’s take a few moments and take a look at the October surprise phenomenon.

The term “October surprise” dates to 1972, when then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger announced 12 days before the election that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam. Given that Nixon beat George McGovern by 23 percentage points and 503 electoral votes, though, it’s hard to say that Kissinger’s announcement mattered very much. Regardless, rumors of an October surprise have surfaced every four years since; and just like in 1972, it’s hard to identify a case where one truly played a decisive role.

The Wikipedia page on the topic, for example, cites two examples from the 2004 campaigns: “On October 27, the New York Times reported the disappearance of huge cache of explosives from a warehouse in Iraq,” which the Kerry campaign said was the result of mismanagement by the Bush Administration. Two days later, Al Jazeera aired a video of Osama bin Laden, which some analysts say helped George W. Bush “as it thrust the War on Terrorism back into the public eye.” Okay–but both of those stories lacked one key ingredient of a true October surprise: conspiracy. Unless you believe that the Times worked on its piece in conjunction with the Kerry campaign, or that Al Qaeda worked out its video release date with Karl Rove, neither one really holds up.

What about this year? Here are some of the last-gasp October Surprise hopes that McCain supporters cling to (and Obama’s supporters fear). Time is running out, but it’s never too late.

1. The Michelle Obama “Whitey” video

Where is it? The “whitey” rumor surfaced back in the late-Spring, when Hillary Clinton was still clinging to the faintest of hopes of winning the nomination. The story of a racist diatribe by Michelle Obama captured on videotape was spread by Larry Johnson, a former intelligence official and Clinton supporter. “Republicans who have seen the tape of Michelle Obama ranting about ‘whitey’ describe it as ‘STUNNING,’” wrote Johnson.

The story spread like wildfire across the blogosphere, even though there was never a shred of evidence that it was true, and despite the fact that the story was preposterous on its face. But there’s still hope. “If Republican poohbahs have their way the tape will remain on ice until October,” Johnson wrote at the time. “But when it comes out, Barack will be permanently branded with the Nation of Islam.”

2. War With Iran

This one has been floated for years. “It should come as no surprise if the Bush Administration undertakes a preemptive war against Iran sometime before the November election,” former Senator Gary Hart wrote back in 2006. “Were these more normal times, this would be a stunning possibility, quickly dismissed by thoughtful people as dangerous, unprovoked, and out of keeping with our national character. But we do not live in normal times.”

Certainly the possibility of war with Iran was real, but fears appear to have been overblown. With no American war flotilla spotted heading towards Tehran at this time, you can ignore this one as well.

3. The capture or killing of Osama bin Laden

This was also suggested back in 2004–the idea being that the White House knows exactly where bin Laden is and can take him out whenever it wants. The bin Laden angle gained traction again last month, when Bob Woodward told Larry King, “[T]he White House released a statement last week saying there are newly developed techniques and operations. So we’ll see. Maybe they can use it on bin Laden and, all of a sudden, the September or the October surprise is going to be the apprehension or the death of bin Laden.” I only wish the Bush Administration was this efficient and capable.

4. Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen

This also has been floated for some time, and now it seems to be picking up steam as a result of several lawsuits filed by Obama’s opponent. Among them is a case (recently dismissed in Pennsylvania) brought by attorney Phillip Berg who alleges that Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible for the presidency.

The ever-reliable WorldNetDaily is on the case:

In Kenya, WND was told by government authorities that all documents concerning Obama were under seal until after the U.S. presidential election on November 4.

The Obama campaign website entitled “Fight the Smears” posts a state of Hawaii “Certificate of Live Birth” which is obviously not the original birth certificate generated by the hospital where Obama reportedly was born.

The beauty of this rumor is that it will survive the election and continue to offer hope to diehards in the event of an Obama victory–perhaps we’ll see an “Impeach Obama” movement start on November 5.

But all of that aside–if you’re worried about an October surprise, don’t be. They never mattered, and they won’t matter now. Which is good; the last thing we need after the past eight years are any more surprises.

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
[Browsings]
Burn After Reading·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

1

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today