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Could an October Surprise Change the Course of Midterms?

Newsweek 10/1/2022 Darragh Roche
In this combination mage, Judith Nedel fills in her ballot, at a voting booth during primary voting at Central Elementary School on May 3, 2022 in Kent, Ohio and inset image of former US President Donald Trump © Getty In this combination mage, Judith Nedel fills in her ballot, at a voting booth during primary voting at Central Elementary School on May 3, 2022 in Kent, Ohio and inset image of former US President Donald Trump

October is the last full month of campaigning in the upcoming midterm elections that may prove crucial for President Joe Biden's agenda, and a major test of former President Donald Trump's endorsement power.

As September ends, speculation will be rife that the election could soon see a so-called "October surprise" that may have a major impact on voters' choices and change the trajectory of the midterms.

The term appears to have been coined in 1980 by William Casey, campaign manager for Ronald Reagan, and originally referred to the possibility that U.S. hostages held in Iran would be released before that year's presidential election.

The hostages were ultimately freed on inauguration day, 1981 but the idea of an October surprise stuck. Many elections since 1980 have featured unexpected events that could potentially change the outcome, though not always in October.

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Past Surprises

There were several candidates for an October surprise during the 2020 presidential election, including controversy surrounding a laptop belonging to Biden's son, Hunter Biden, as well as Trump and then first lady Melania Trump testing positive for COVID-19, which was announced on October 2.

During the 2018 midterm elections, a migrant caravan from Central America was widely seen as the October surprise and garnered significant media attention, while former President Donald Trump also emphasized it. Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives that year but retained the Senate.

In the fraught 2016 presidential election, Trump's explicit remarks in a 2005 recording of Access Hollywood resurfaced on October 5. On the same day, WikiLeaks began releasing emails from political consultant John Podesta that many believed painted Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a poor light.

It's a difficult to gauge how much influence an October surprise has on the outcome of elections, but if 2022 follows the recent pattern, voters will be due something unexpected this month.

A Trump Surprise

The nature of an October surprise means it can't be predicted, but the ongoing legal issues facing former Trump have the potential to deliver a surprise before midterm elections on November 8.

"Any unexpected Trump news before November—from an indictment to an announcement on running in 2024—has the potential to shift the tectonic plates underlying the midterms," Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek.

Speculation has been rife that charges could be brought against the former president. The FBI is continuing to investigate the handling of classified documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence following the appointment of a special master, Judge Raymond Dearie.

In a separate matter, New York Attorney General Letitia James has said she will make a criminal referral to federal prosecutors and the IRS after she filed a $250 million civil suit against Trump, the Trump Organization, and his three eldest children.

That suit alleges Trump inflated his net worth in order to "unjustly enrich himself and cheat the system."

The Department of Justice (DOJ) may have reason to avoid bringing any charges against Trump even if an indictment is being considered. An unofficial deadline has already passed—the so-called "60 day rule"—that means the DOJ avoids making any decisions that could affect how people vote this close to an election.

Gift said it was "unlikely the DOJ would proceed with charges against Trump so close to an election."

A 2024 Announcement

The former president has repeatedly hinted that he will mount a third bid for the White House and seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, but he has not made a formal announcement.

There had been speculation he could do so before the midterms, which could potentially turn the elections into a referendum on Trump.

"Trump does seem to have been persuaded by Republican leaders that throwing his hat in the ring for 2024 before the midterms wouldn't go over well within the GOP," Gift told Newsweek.

"Still, Trump could surprise on other fronts, and pundits shouldn't be shocked if he finds some way to make waves before voters cast their ballots next month," Gift added.

'Anything Is Possible'

While the former president may seem like the obvious candidate for an October surprise, it's still possible something else unexpected will happen unrelated to Trump.

"On an October surprise: anything is possible, as we've seen this year in so many cases from Ukraine to [Liz] Truss to Italy," Robert Singh, a professor at the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, told Newsweek.

Singh noted that "the phenomenon tends more to be associated with presidential elections than congressional [elections or] midterms. It's more effective in the former, where attention is focused on the two candidates for the White House."

"With so many congressional races, and two-thirds of the Senate not up for election, it's more difficult to shape the race across so many districts and states," he went on.

"I suppose it is possible that the Justice Department might announce a prosecution of Trump, or the January 6 Committee issue a report, but how much effect that might have, and to whose benefit, is far from clear," Singh said.

Singh said President Biden "could perhaps announce something to appeal to the base, too, but quite what—when he's played his hand on matters from inflation to student debt—isn't obvious."

"So, overall, I doubt it," Singh said.

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