The ‘October surprise’ and the November election in U.S.

Faced with an event that not only sets the political tone for the next two years but also the general framework for the showdown in 2024, Democrats have every reason to be concerned

October 11, 2022 12:08 am | Updated 11:44 am IST

President Joe Biden in Hagerstown, Md.

President Joe Biden in Hagerstown, Md. | Photo Credit: AP

With barely weeks to go for the November showdown, Republicans and Democrats are bracing for an event that not only sets the political landscape in the United States for the next two years but also the general framework for the showdown in 2024, with or without Donald Trump. Democrats are especially concerned and should be for more than one reason. Holding their own ranks is a major task and beating back the persistent and worn-out rhetoric of many in the Grand Old Party (GOP) of a fraudulent U.S. presidential election in 2020 seems to be a bigger challenge.

Recently, Democrats were bracing themselves for a disastrous rout on November 8. The party was expected to be beaten badly in the House of Representatives and the chances of the GOP wresting control of the Senate also seemed to be a distinct possibility. The poor ratings of the Democrats aside, what hurt was the standing of U.S. President Joseph Biden who had an approval rating between the low to mid 30s.

Findings of NPR poll

But a latest NPR poll shows Mr. Biden to be rebounding to an approval rate of 44%. Still, not many political pundits are sure if this will reflect on the fortunes of the Democratic Party. At one time this June, the country was just outraged that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the historic Roe vs Wade, in what led to an emotional and spirited debate on abortion and the right of a woman over her body. Three months ago, and for a brief period of time, ‘abortion’ ranked as one of the top issues in the mid-term elections. But to the dismay of many liberals, that subject is slowly falling off the radar to perhaps fifth or sixth position in the scheme of things only to be replaced by what conservatives have used to go after the Biden administration — inflation and crime. The NPR/Marist poll also had some warning signals to the Democrats, the first of which being that 70% of respondents believed that the country is headed in the wrong direction and that inflation is the number one issue that voters say is on the top of their minds when casting their ballots. On the enthusiasm front, there is again trouble even as both parties are charged up for the election. The whites and college-educated segment who have leaned to the Democratic side in the past decade continue to be the most engaged, but the latest survey has shown that young and African-American voters are least likely to vote — this is trouble.

Past political events

One of the things that has been of interest, at least since the 1980s, was something known as “October Surprise”, or an event/ events that happen suddenly, re-shaping or attempting to re-work the political framework. For instance, in the election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (Republican) in 1980, there was an eerie feeling in the conservative camp that the 52 American hostages held in Tehran since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 would be released ahead of the November election so as to give (incumbent) President Carter an electoral advantage.

Also read | Why the U.S. mid-term election matters

In fact, an unproved allegation has been that the Reagan team worked with the Iranians and convinced them to have the hostages freed only after the election was over. The Americans were finally let go on the day of Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981. The closest to an October Surprise came in 2016 when days before the election, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, informed members of Congress that he was re-opening the matter pertaining to Hillary Clinton’s handling of confidential e-mails. To this day, many Democrats believe that it cost Ms. Clinton the Presidential election. The election of 2022 had its share of surprises as well starting with Republican hopeful for a Senate seat in Georgia, Herschel Walker, the football legend, alleged to have paid for his girlfriend’s abortion even as he was politically opposed to abortion. The flatout denials from the Walker camp and the candidate aside, revelations that he is the father of one of the children by the same woman do not seem to have worried the GOP. Neither has the issue gathered enough traction in spite of all the heat between Democrats and Republicans for control of the Senate.

The Saudi factor

The real October Surprise could come in November and in the form of Saudi Arabia which has agreed, as a part of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, to curtail oil production up to two million barrels of oil a day or more that would not only result in increased crude prices but also assist Russia. The worst part is that at a time when gas prices have been seen stabilising in pumps in the U.S., the Biden White House and Democrats are again seeing gasoline as one of the top issues in the November election. This is not a comforting thought. For now, the Biden administration is said to be looking at various options including perhaps lifting some sanctions against Iran and Venezuela so as to incentivise their higher production. But Saudi Arabia has given the perfect opportunity for law makers, including from the Democratic Party, to not only question the wisdom of Mr. Biden having visited the kingdom in July but also focus on a complete reassessment of U.S.-Riyadh relations including the stationing of American troops and the selling of sophisticated weaponry to that country.

Sridhar Krishnaswami was a senior journalist in Washington for 14 years covering North America and the United Nations. The views expressed are personal

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