The Libya crisis and the Romney campaign video are taking the Obama-Romney race in a different direction. But fall campaign surprises are hardly new—as are leaks of private campaign meetings.
The October or Autumn Surprise is a last-second major development that shifts the landscape of a presidential campaign.
In one famous case, the Iran hostage crisis of 1980 was the issue. The GOP and Ronald Reagan claimed the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, was arranging the hostages’ release to occur just days before the election.
That never happened, but the October Surprise legacy–or myth–endures, and now voters and the media are trying to figure out two rapid-fire developments this year.
Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and four consulate workers were killed in an attack that might have been perpetrated by terrorists—or by a mob upset with an obscure American-made movie.
And on Monday, the same day that Mitt Romney was to announce a new focus on foreign policy and detailed planning, two liberal websites released a May video of Romney talking bluntly about President Obama’s supporters.
In edited video supplied by a source at the fundraiser, Romney said that he couldn’t effectively campaign to 47 percent of Americans because they were dependent on government funds and “pay no income tax.”
Romney clarified his remarks at a late Monday press conference and said some of his statements were “not elegantly stated” because he was “speaking off the cuff” at the private event.
Both sides were actively spinning the Libya and Romney video stories on Tuesday.
Experts had predicted the race between President Barack Obama and Romney would get heated after the Democrats and Republicans finished their nominating conventions.
The October Surprise tradition
The tradition of an Autumn or October Surprise is now part of the expected campaign trajectory for any major presidential candidate.
In 2008, John McCain dealt with the Wall Street collapse just six weeks before Election Day, which started in mid-September. As the candidate of the incumbent party, McCain struggled with the fallout of a historic economic event right before an election.
Four years earlier, Osama bin Laden issued a video just a week before the election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, in which he called for people to not vote for Bush.
Two other famous October Surprises had mixed results. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson stopped bombing in Vietnam in an effort to help Hubert Humphrey, and in 1972, the Nixon administration said that it was near a deal to end the Vietnam War.
But despite some theories that October Surprises are a recent trend, starting in 1968, there were other events that happened in fall presidential campaigns that swung elections.
In one famous example, FDR’s “Fala” speech helped the president win a fourth term in office in 1944.
But another event from 1884 has some parallels to current politics.
The favorite in the 1884 election, Republican candidate James Blaine, committed two late gaffes that gave the election to Grover Cleveland.
Just a week before the election, Blaine attended a meeting at the Fifty Avenue Hotel in New York. A Blaine supporter called the Democrats the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine didn’t rebuke the remarks and they were leaked to the press.
Coverage of a private Blaine fundraiser helped to sink his campaign, too.
In late October 1884, Blaine had a private dinner with some some key fundraisers at the Delmonico Hotel in New York. The group included John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould.
The meeting was leaked to publisher Joseph Pulitzer, a Democrat, who ran a scathing cartoon in the New York World called “The Royal Feast Of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.”
The cartoon caused a sensation, as it showed the candidate and the millionaires ignoring starving children as they dined.
Within days, every New York City newspaper was reporting on the banquet, and the Democrats had published handbills that enraged voters.
Blaine lost New York state by a total of 1,047 votes and the national election as a result of the two late campaign surprises.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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