American election talk at the end of September must include speculation about the “October Surprise.” The so-called October Surprise is a news jolt, delivered late in the election cycle, that the electorate might consider a game changer. If it were revealed that Hillary Clinton actually had a serpent’s tail, for instance, that would qualify — though her GOP rival would likely say it didn’t surprise him one bit, indeed that he predicted it. The most notable “October Surprise” in American politics is one that never happened. In 1980 Ronald Reagan’s team worried that incumbent Jimmy Carter might announce an end to the Iran hostage crisis before voters went to the polls — most historians believe that would have changed the election outcome. It didn’t happen. (Some have speculated that Reagan’s team actually worked to prevent it.)
The 2016 election could go either way, as autumnal surprises go. Hillary Clinton could be victimized, some suspect, by further exposure of her private email correspondence by groups like Wikileaks — which has pledged to deliver more damaging material. On the other hand, Clinton is already the most exposed candidate in history, so a surprise about her would have to be truly stunning (see serpent’s tail, above) to have major impact. GOP candidate Donald Trump might have his tax returns exposed — and if they, as Mitt Romney believes, contain a “bombshell” that could qualify as a legit October Surprise. But Trump’s supporters have been hard to discourage, and those who are with him at this point won’t likely be deterred by any October revelations about his tax breaks. In 2016 what might have more of an effect than any information exposed is the source: Russia and Vladimir Putin have been suspected of supporting Wikileaks and of doing their own hacking related to the American candidates. If the American public senses that Russia is working for one candidate against another, it may not be the October Surprise information that tilts the balance, but the perception/appearance of Russian cooperation and collaboration that does the most harm.