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November surprises haven't changed many election outcomes

Nov 2, 2016

Moments after the news came last Friday that the FBI had apparently discovered new Hillary Clinton e-mails, my phone rang.

A reporter for the Benzinga news service wanted to know if there was any precedent for a last-minute October surprise affecting the outcome of a presidential election.


I said it entirely depended on what he meant by “affected.” If you mean a case where some late-breaking development clearly changed who won, I didn’t think so.

But there have been cases where it might have. Probably the biggest shocker came in October 1964, when Walter Jenkins, then President Lyndon Johnson’s closest assistant, was arrested for a homosexual act in a Washington D.C. restroom.

The potential significance of that is hard to imagine in a world where same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

Nobody talked about gay rights then.

Homosexuals then were almost universally seen as mentally unstable perverts and security risks, prone to blackmail. For the man closest to the president to be one might be enough to bring an administration down.

Johnson had been running far ahead of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who had been charging that America was suffering from moral decay.

The story was immediately leaked to two Republican newspapers and to Goldwater. If you have any doubt that times have changed, consider this.

Goldwater refused to mention it.

The two newspapers who wanted to see him win refused to write about it. But a week later, the news did break.

The nation held its breath. But within a day, Nikita Khrushchev was deposed as leader of the Soviet Union. The next day there was an unexpected change of government in Great Britain, and the next day, China, then seen as a frightening and crazy country, stunned everyone by exploding a nuclear bomb.

Everybody forgot about the sex scandal, and a jittery electorate went back to the sitting president, who won by a landslide.

People tend to prefer the tried and tested in times of crisis. Sixty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower would likely have been reelected over Adlai Stevenson, but polls showed a closer race than the one they’d had four years earlier.

But in the final days of the campaign, major foreign crises – actually, wars – broke out in Hungary and over the Suez Canal. Voters once again swung heavily to Eisenhower, who racked up a tremendous landslide. However, this year’s last-minute e-mail “revelation,” seemed to me to be disturbingly different.

What it most reminded me was what was done to Milo Radulovich, a Detroiter who was nearly thrown out of the Air Force reserve during the Cold War. He was summoned to a hearing; a sealed envelope was placed in front of him, and told, “There’s the evidence against you, but you can’t see it. Now go ahead and try to prove your innocence.”

That’s not much different than the director of the FBI announcing that they’ve discovered some e-mails “pertinent” to the long-finished investigation of Hillary Clinton on a computer belonging to the terminally pathetic Anthony Weiner.

Not a word about what the emails were about or who wrote them. We don’t know how all this will play out.

What I do know is that I’ve never seen a campaign like this before. If we’re lucky, maybe we never will again.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.