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A “November Surprise”? History Shows That’s Possible

(Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)

“The following examples remind us that no presidential race is over until the votes are counted.”

In the era of the Trump news cycle, October seems far too distant from Election Day to be considered the eleventh hour. Plenty of attention has been given to last-minute game changers in American presidential contests. These moments, coined “October Surprises” in 1980 by William Casey—Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager—have occurred so widely (and so often) that they are now almost expected.

What is far less common is a “November surprise.” And because of the limited time between such news breaking and Election Day itself, November surprises—in order to have an impact on voting—have universally occurred in the era of mass media, particularly that of the 24-hour televised news cycle. The following examples remind us that no presidential race is over until the votes are counted.

November 2, 1968: Nixon Sabotages Vietnam Peace Talks

The 1968 Presidential Election was one of the most unique in American history and deserves to be put in brief context. It was a critical year in American history. The Vietnam War escalated with the Tet Offensive; President Lyndon B. Johnson did not seek reelection; both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; anti-war protests and race riots erupted throughout the nation; and the presidential election was a contest of three candidates: Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon, and Independent Governor of Alabama George Wallace.

The presidential contest took center stage in the weeks leading up to the election. Early October saw a boost for Democrats when Governor Wallace’s campaign collapsed. Many previous supporters of Governor Wallace then moved to bolster Vice President Humphrey’s candidacy, helping to narrow the wide lead that Vice President Nixon had enjoyed for most of the race. Meanwhile, the outgoing Johnson administration was pushing for de-escalation in Vietnam at the Paris Peace Talks. This was sound politics too, given the war’s increasing unpopularity in the United States. The ability to announce peace in Vietnam, Democratic leadership believed, would secure President Johnson’s legacy and win the anti-war vote, paving a clear path to a victory for Vice President Humphrey.

Vice President Nixon, though, had other plans. Aware of his dwindling lead, he ordered his campaign staff and Vietnamese backchannels to “monkey wrench” the White House’s peace talks. Vice President Nixon realized that if President Johnson were to fail to secure peace in Vietnam, it would backfire on the Democratic Party, which was already being seen as disorganized and inept. What is now known as the “Chennault Affair” was a success. A presidential candidate had successfully sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam by promising a better deal if he were to be elected. Intelligence officials and the Johnson administration knew that Vice President Nixon was behind it but chose to keep the information under wraps.

News of the failed peace talks made headlines on November 2nd, and the Democrats’ momentum quickly faded. Vice President Nixon defeated Vice President Humphrey to become the 37th President of the United States. (And, interestingly enough, George Wallace won five states in the Deep South, marking the last time any third-party candidate carried a state in the electoral college.)

November 1, 1980: Ronald Reagan endorsed by the NRA, the Group’s First Presidential Endorsement

The 1980 presidential campaign was defined by the Iran Hostage Crisis, which began on November 4, 1979, exactly one year before Election Day. While the nation initially rallied around President Jimmy Carter and the hostages, perceptions about President Carter’s capability began to change after a failed rescue attempt and unsuccessful hostage negotiations. The Iran Hostage Crisis was the death knell of a presidency already marked by a slew of other challenges.

Enter Ronald Reagan, the former actor and Governor of California. Governor Reagan believed the crises that marked the Carter administration were a result of poor leadership and promised to “Make America Great Again,” while restoring the nation’s standing in the world. In one of the few examples of a presidential debate making a profound difference in a presidential campaign, Governor Reagan asked Americans directly, “Are you better off than you were four years go?” Governor Reagan’s popularity skyrocketed.

His late-in-the-game climb in the polls was further aided by the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) historic endorsement. Formed in 1871 with the intent to promote marksmanship, by the mid-20th century, the NRA had grown into a politically-oriented Second Amendment rights organization supported by millions of gun-owning Americans. On November 1, 1980, the NRA made its first presidential endorsement in its then 109-year history when it gave the nod to the Republican candidate through a national advertisement campaign. Only three days before the election, countless American gun owners were told there was a candidate that would be poised to protect their particular interests.

Governor Reagan went on to win a massive electoral college victory on November 4th, taking all but five states and returning the Senate to Republican control for the first time in 28 years.

November 2, 2000: George W. Bush’s Labor Day 1976 Drunk Driving Arrest

During the 2000 presidential campaign between Texas Governor George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore, a local news station in Portland, Maine uncovered information suggesting that Governor Bush had once been arrested in Maine for drunk driving. Fox News broke the story, and it quickly became a national headline. Aged thirty at the time of the offense, Bush was returning to his family compound in Kennebunkport after a night of drinking beers with friends when he was pulled over, breathalyzed, and taken into custody shortly after midnight on September 4, 1976. In an impromptu press conference shortly after the report, Governor Bush shared that he had decided to keep the drunk driving incident quiet for fear that it may negatively influence his young daughters.

This story broke five days before election day, when polling had shown Governor Bush with a narrow lead. Whether this revelation had a sizable impact or not is difficult to determine conclusively. The election was extremely close; however, Governor Bush narrowly prevailed to become the 43rd President of the United States.

*November 1, 2012: Chris Christie, Barack Obama, and Hurricane Sandy

The defining event of October of 2012 was Hurricane Sandy, which caused upwards of $65 billion in damage and stands as one of the worst natural disasters in American history. New Jersey, where the hurricane made landfall, was particularly hard hit. In the days following the storm, the state’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie, became a national focal point with his television appearances, press conferences, and visits to the damage-stricken New Jersey coastline. He had also been the keynote speaker at that year’s Republican National Convention and was arguably the most visible Republican other than the party’s presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

One may notice that this example has an asterisk. Here’s why: On the afternoon of October 31st, in the aftermath of Sandy’s devastating landfall, President Barack Obama and Governor Christie spent a considerable amount of time together touring the Jersey Shore and speaking with residents. Late in the day on October 31st—and well into the early days of November—Governor Christie heaped praise upon the President, who was running in a tight reelection bid against Governor Romney.

There has been plenty of speculation about whether Governor Christie’s warmth toward President Obama—considering the former’s prominent status in the Republican Party—helped to sway the election. Governor Romney, on the other hand, was widely criticized for his response to the Hurricane, which was limited to a rally-turned-food-drive event in Ohio. Governor Christie’s embrace of the incumbent has led many to wonder if this genuine act of bipartisan cooperation between the two men helped tip the scales towards the President in a tight race.

President Obama enjoyed a significant victory in the November 6th election.

Conclusion

Not all of these November surprises may have been eleventh-hour game changers; however, they were almost certainly significant enough at the time to affect voting outcomes to some degree. While no bombshell is likely to alter significantly the remarkably steady state of the race between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden, there is certainly time (and precedent) for a story to tip the scales in either direction, especially in the battleground states. With only two calendar days of November prior to Election Day this year, the window of opportunity for a potential “November surprise” is extremely limited. History, however, shows that it is, indeed, possible. And in this current political climate, nothing ought to be considered fully outside the realm of possibility.

Zachary Rose is a history teacher in New Jersey. 

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Edwin Moise
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Edwin Moise

Your discussion of what Richard Nixon did in 1968 is a bit misleading. There was no possibility that President Johnson could have achieved a peace agreement before the end of his term of office, or even gotten close to peace, without Nixon’s sabotage. What Nixon’s sabotage did was make it a lot more obvious that the peace talks were not going anywhere fast. He was preventing Johnson from giving the public a misleading impression that he might be getting close to peace.
On the other hand, I am not certain that Nixon understood this. For all I know, Nixon may have believed he was sabotaging an actual chance for peace.