Why the October Surprise isn't what it used to be.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 28 2008 6:28 PM

October Unsurprise

Have you heard the latest stunning, mildly interesting revelation?

Time is running short this year for an October Surprise, one of those late-breaking news developments that upsets the presidential race. In 2000, just days before Election Day, we learned of George Bush's 1978 DUI charge. Karl Rove has said that the disclosure depressed evangelical support for Bush. And four years ago, there was the late disclosure of a tape from Osama bin Laden, which John Kerry says cost him the race.

HERSHEY, PA - OCTOBER 28: Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin and John McCain
John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

So far—and there are still three days left!—there has been no revelation of a similar magnitude. But that has not kept the campaigns from yelling, "Surprise!" The hope is that an effective last-minute drama will (in McCain's case) change the dynamic or (in Obama's) hasten it. Failing that, a surprise moment will motivate the party base and give a campaign a winning news cycle. The campaign is slipping into a monotonous phase and any shiny new object may garner some attention.

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Which raises the question: What distinguishes a fake October Surprise from the garden-variety, depressingly familiar overhyping of some little thing that we'll all forget in 12 hours? One thing: It relies on the dwindling clock for its fake drama. It's the idea that the Obama and McCain campaigns have been hiding some incendiary secret that's just slipped out at the eleventh hour. On Monday, as John McCain campaigned across Ohio and Pennsylvania, he referred to an audio recording "revealed only yesterday" that showed Barack Obama was a closet socialist. (Revealed only yesterday!)

In Hershey, Pa., on Tuesday morning, McCain had even fresher dirt: a quote from Joe Biden saying the Obama tax cut would apply to even fewer people than his running mate had claimed. That's not what he said, but by noon the McCain campaign was hosting a conference to connect the dots for reporters about Obama's "creeping tax plan." This is politics as orchestrated by Perry Mason.

But the McCain campaign was not alone. Obama aides sent out an e-mail Tuesday morning declaring that McCain's top policy adviser had made a "stunning admission" that the health insurance most people currently get from their employers is "way better" than the health care John McCain's plan pushes people into. Burdened by the realities of hiding the secrets of McCain's plan, he could no longer stifle the truth. By the afternoon, Obama aides were holding their own conference call about this stunning admission.

US Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

You knew it wouldn't be long before Obama himself would show just how stunned he was about the admission. "This morning, we were offered a stunning bit of straight talk—an October surprise—from his top economic adviser," Obama said Tuesday in Harrisonburg, Va. The adviser "actually said that the health insurance people currently get from their employer is—and I quote—'way better' than the health care they would get if John McCain becomes president."

You can imagine the dramatic possibilities when Obama takes over our airwaves tomorrow night during his half-hour infomercial. Perhaps an aide can rush on the set to deliver news of the latest shocker.

"DEVELOPING" reads the Obama e-mail message announcing the "stunning admission" about McCain's health care plan. I hope this was a bit of wry irony from Obama campaign Press Secretary Bill Burton, parodying the stilted language of the Drudge Report. Drudge has become justly famous by giving us October surprises every month of the year—or every day, for that matter. He is the Town Crier who is always bawling. It's been a wildly successful strategy for Drudge, based on the theory that people never read more than the shocking headline and don't bother to question whether the headline is true. Lately, however, as the gruel has gotten thin, Drudge has had to hype ever-more-ridiculous nonstories and outlier polls to create drama. Soon he may start quoting polls from Mrs. Fleischman's first-grade class.

These fake October Surprises are silly because they're not that surprising. After a campaign marked by daily charges and countercharges, the public's endorphin receptors are numbed. The stunning admissions both campaigns are getting excited about are no different than the gaffes and low-level deceptions we've been dieting on for months. And the stunned October Surprise drama from both McCain and Obama is merely the refined flopping and fainting we've seen during the campaign's marathon of phony umbrage taking.

There's another factor that may erode the October Surprise franchise: Lots of people have already voted. The one area where these counterfeit acts might have a sufficient impact is with each party's base. Base voters are easily stirred by the latest indignity, and they're not often the ones who bother using Google to check the context of the latest bombshell.

I'm not trying to jinx us all by calling for an October Surprise. This election has been surprising enough. A placid lope toward Election Day would be just fine with me. The only surprise I'd like to see would be press conferences in which follow-up questions were allowed. But I'm more likely to find woodland gnomes in my garden. And that really would be a surprise, since everyone knows they don't come out after September.

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