In local campaigns, you can tell election time is around the corner when reports of missing or stolen yard signs reach their peak. At the national level, more serious worries about suppression, stolen elections, drunken driving arrests, and “Superstorms” tend to signal the campaign's denouement.
And so it is this year. In Georgia, a flier has surfaced suggesting that Democrats need to vote in order to avoid another Ferguson. In Maryland, there have been reports of voting machines switching voters from Republicans to Democrats. And, more concerning, perhaps, is that—according to a study reported in The Washington Post—non citizens could potentially decide the 2014 elections. In fact: "Non-citizen votes could have given Senate Democrats the pivotal 60th vote needed to overcome filibusters in order to pass health-care reform and other Obama administration priorities in the 111th Congress."
If you were worried about Ebola and ISIS, you can add stolen elections to your list!
Of course, legitimate instances of voter fraud, suppression, intimidation, etc., should be vigorously investigated and immediately halted—but it's also important to remember that almost every year a few salacious stories crop up that strain credulity. The aforementioned stories may very well be legitimate, but let's consider them a sort of canary in the coal mine. With less than a week left, as everyone gets swept up in the maelstrom of political war, those who cover politics should expect something weird to pop.
This time-honored phenomenon has a name: The October surprise. In the past, October surprises tended to be orchestrated by political campaigns, who timed the release of opposition research to ensure their opponent had little time to respond. When Erin Fehlau, a reporter for Portland, Maine’s WPXT, broke the story days before the 2000 election that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving, some suggested it might have cost him the popular vote. A Democratic activist named Tom Connolly later revealed to the AP that he was the source.
Four years later, Bush would be aided by the airing of a video by Osama bin Laden, which dropped just before Election Day. Some, including John Kerry, felt it swung the election. Some observers even argued that bin Laden intentionally timed the video to help Bush win reelection, which sounds crazy, but that’s sort of the point of this column.
It's certainly not impossible that a similar revelation—let's say another ISIS beheading video, or additional Ebola victims in the United States—could help sway the midterms for Republicans. There's not much candidates can do about organic surprises.
And sometimes, it's just the weather. Two years ago, it was "Superstorm Sandy," which effectively pressed the mute button and froze President Obama's lead over Mitt Romney.
But while October surprises can be organic, we should probably expect more to be orchestrated—and not just by the opposing candidates. Aided by modern technology (which grants everyone a megaphone and the ability to make a story go "viral"), and a world that preaches involvement and user interaction—it's probably no surprise that civilians are getting in on the act, capturing video, and driving last-minute narratives into the media.
There are also more media outlets. In recent days, we've seen insinuations by DeadSpin that Cory Gardner never actually played football and that David Perdue signed the torso of a woman (it was an insulin pump). Both turned out to be bogus. And there's less of a filter for stories that would have been either too unprovable or unseemly to end up in a dead-tree publication. Who could forget Gawker's "I Had a One-Night Stand With Christine O'Donnell?”
Whether it's breathless coverage of the New Black Panthers, or reports of vote buying in Mississippi, recent examples abound. But since our collective memories are so short (remember when we were all obsessed with whether or not you should recline airplane seats?!?), this 2008 story about a John McCain volunteer is probably worth revisiting: "[Ashley] Todd originally told police a man 'punched her in the back of the head, knocking her to the ground, and he continued to punch and kick her while threatening to teach her a lesson for being a McCain supporter,' according to a police statement.
The woman also told police her attacker "called her a lot of names and stated that 'You are going to be a Barack supporter,' at which time she states he sat on her chest, pinning both her hands down with his knees, and scratched into her face a backward letter 'B' on the right side of her face using what she believed to be a very dull knife."
As you might recall, it was all a hoax. Hilariously, Todd scratched that ‘B’ into her own face while looking in a mirror, which explains why it was backwards, and gave herself a black eye besides (Warning to anyone this cycle who wants to fake a self-inflicted carving: Be careful using a mirror. A similar thing happened to Morton Downey Jr., who claimed he was attacked by neo-Nazis. He was busted for carving the swastika on his face … backwards.) Perhaps we should have been a little more skeptical about this story. But for some center-right media outlets, this probably fit into the "too good to check" rubric.
Well, we have now entered the period in the campaign cycle where people go crazy and campaigns get utterly desperate. This is good advice for the political activists and operatives who tend to go insane this time of year. It’s also valid advice for the general public who are media consumers —but it's especially good advice for those sleep-deprived bastards charged with covering the dwindling days of the 2014 campaign: For the next week, be even more skeptical than normal. Don't trust anyone. Or, if you prefer, as the saying goes, "Trust, but verify."