Every U.S. presidential candidate fears an “October surprise.” This is an important development, inimical to the candidate, that materializes just before voters go to the polls. Bad news at this late date is thought to negatively influence voters at a point that is too late to correct. Last Friday, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton got her October surprise when FBI Director James Comey announced that his organization had found email that might be related to the investigation of Clinton’s email practices, an investigation that concluded last summer that while the candidate had been sloppy, she had not acted in ways that justified prosecution. The FBI is examining the discovery to see if it changes that conclusion and puts Clinton in jeopardy.
The original October surprise occurred in 1972, when 12 days before the election, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger announced that “peace was at hand” in negotiations with North Vietnam to end that bloody war. Democratic challenger George McGovern never had much of a chance in that election, but his candidacy stemmed from opposition to the war; Kissinger’s announcement denied him a platform to oppose President Richard Nixon and McGovern was crushed in the vote that followed.
The incident that looms largest in the U.S. imagination occurred in the 1980 campaign, when Republicans worried that then President Jimmy Carter would engineer the release of American hostages held in Iran just before the vote to influence the result. That never materialized; in fact, the hostages were released only after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office to ensure that Carter was utterly humiliated for his support for the shah of Iran.
Last week, Clinton got her shock when Comey announced that a separate criminal investigation — subsequently revealed to be that of the “sexting” scandal involving former Rep. Anthony Weiner and underaged women — had uncovered email that might be related to the Clinton case. Weiner’s wife (now separated) is Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s closest aides. FBI investigators found that Abedin and Weiner shared a computer on occasion and that there were email on it that might shed light on the Clinton case.
The key word here is “might.” The FBI has not looked at the email; they have a warrant to investigate the device for evidence in the Weiner investigation but they do not have legal authority to look for Clinton-related messages. When they get that warrant, they may find that they have already seen all the email (since they were sent to accounts that the FBI may have already accessed), or they may find that the email has no relationship to matters under investigation, or they may not find email that changes the original conclusion regarding Clinton’s culpability (or lack thereof). It is not even clear if any of the email are actually to or from Clinton, which is the most important point in this case.
But, given the number of email that has to be scanned, it is believed impossible to have an answer to these questions before the Nov. 8 election. Thus, the possibility of criminal behavior by one of the two major party candidates — and the one leading in polls at this point — will hang over this election.
Conspiracy theorists went into overdrive. Democrats charged that Comey, a lifelong Republican, was doing his best to hurt the Clinton campaign, just as he had when, after announcing in July that Clinton would not be prosecuted, he made a lengthy and unprecedented statement discussing the evidence against Clinton. Critics say that the FBI was under no obligation to inform Congress and the move was a breach of long-standing Justice Department policy to make no announcements that might affect a presidential campaign within 60 days of the election.
The Trump campaign applauded the development as proof that Clinton is “crooked” and should not be allowed to run. While it undermines the Trump claim that the system is rigged against him, news that diverts attention from Trump’s own woes is welcome.
But will it matter? For those suspicious of Clinton, the announcement confirms doubts and will harden antagonisms. The news also associates Clinton with the tawdry sleaze that surrounds Weiner — some will see a reflection of husband Bill Clinton’s misdeeds — and suggests that it is not just Clinton but her entire coterie that is suspect. On the other hand, there is nothing substantive, and there is unlikely to be anything before the election. It is hard to imagine that the email have not been seen before. Moreover, early voting has begun and many ballots have already been cast.
Finally, and most significantly, there are not many undecideds left in this campaign. Most voters have made up their minds about who they will support. For those who back Clinton, this is more proof that the right will go to any length to discredit her. For those who vote for her because they cannot abide Donald Trump, this changes nothing. Hardcore Trump supporters and loyal Republicans will see this as proof of what they knew. Undecideds may decide that this is one more reason to opt out of voting or to protest by voting for one of the other two non-mainstream candidates.
In short, there is little reason to think that this will change the course of this election. Then again, this entire campaign has been unprecedented and with just a week to go before election day, there is still time for a “November surprise.”
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