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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am
A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits
Rolls of toilet paper Chicago’s city government has produced this year from recycled City Hall wastepaper:
Two thirds of U.S. teenagers experience uncontrollable rage.
Russia lost, then regained, contact with a satellite carrying five geckos sent to copulate in zero gravity.
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