October surprise

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    ‘…unless God (or Putin?) intervenes, it seems that the US presidential election campaign is going to wind down on Tuesday, November 3, without anything remarkable happening in its dying days.’

    HAPPY birthday to former Senator, former DFA Secretary and former House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who turns a golden 50 today. I don’t normally think I am “old,” but when I realize that Cong Alan, who was only 14 years old when I first started working as legislative assistant to his father, then Batasan Pambansa Assemblyman Renato Cayetano – and is now turning 50, all of a sudden I feel my age. Happy birthday also to Ramon B. Mitra Jr., who turns 56 today; coincidentally, the elder Cayetano and the elder Mitra were very good friends.

    Belated happy birthday to former Gov-turned Cong Joey Sarte Salceda, and to Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) chair Atty. Teodoro Jose Matta.

    October is coming to a close, and every four years, this period of time is an exciting time in the United States, being the last week of the campaign period for the Presidency. Exciting, because presidential elections in the United States are usually close fights, with very few exceptions like the re-election of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Otherwise, they’re close, give or take 5% spread in opinion polls, and because of the usual margins of error of between 1-3% you see why the show isn’t over until, as they say, the fat lady sings.

    The closeness of the race tells you how deeply divided America is, between the more conservative/rural population that usually votes Republican, and the more liberal/urban population that usually votes Democrat.

    That the Americans have a unique way of electing presidents makes the process even more exciting. It means that national polls matter only to a certain extent, because a president is elected on the basis of the number of federal states he is able to win, in the process piling up 270 Electoral College votes (EV). Since the EV is allocated depending on population size, highly populated states like California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Michigan (to cite some examples) have the biggest, while states like Hawaii, New Hampshire and Maine, being least populated, have the smallest EVs. There are states that have long been considered solid Democrat (or blue) states and those that are considered solid Republican (or red) states, California and Massachusetts being perfect examples of the former and Texas and Georgia being perfect examples of the latter. But America’s changing demographics, particularly the growth of the non-WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant) population, some of the old “sure” states are now called “battleground” states, which means that turnout can determine who wins and loses the state – and the presidency.

    Again, due to the unique Electoral College vote system, the popular vote doesn’t matter much. You can win by millions (Hillary over Trump in 2016, Al Gore over George W. Bush in 2000) or by a whisker (John F. Kennedy winning 100,000 popular votes more over Richard Nixon in 1960) but that doesn’t matter. What matters is which states you win and are you winning in enough of them to garner 270 votes.

    This is why many candidates always hope for an “October surprise,” something that could breathe life into and change the dynamics of the crucial dying weeks of the campaign. It could be something as simple as an economic uptick, or a vaccine discovery, or some other event that creates a sense of patriotism and unity (usually benefitting an incumbent). Or it could be a foreign affairs challenge, or a natural disaster, or some other event that creates a cloud of doubt in the population.

    In 2016, something like that happened when the FBI raised some brouhaha over the private email server that Hillary Clinton was using during her time as Secretary of State.

    This was amplified by a release of email by Wiki-Leaks, allegedly stolen from the server of the Democratic Party’s National Committee (DNC). These didn’t help the undecideds decide for Hillary; many Democrats (like African-Americans who had gone for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012) stayed home, thinking that since the surveys were showing that she would win anyway their not voting wouldn’t matter.

    In 1980, something like that also happened when Iranians occupied the US Embassy in Tehran and took US diplomats hostage. Jimmy Carter, running for re-election, desperately sought ways to get the hostages out, including a rescue attempt that ended up botched in the desert; Carter did get the hostages out but the deal happened too late to save his presidency and he lost by a landslide to Reagan.

    This is why Donald Trump has been hoping that a COVID vaccine would be approved by now, with some time left for him to boast about it during the campaign, turning around his image as a President who disastrously addressed the pandemic. Such an announcement could have been his “October surprise,” but it can almost be dismissed as not happening.

    And so, unless God (or Putin?) intervenes, it seems that the US presidential election campaign is going to wind down on Tuesday, November 3, without anything remarkable happening in its dying days. And within 24 hours or maybe a little more, we will know whether POTUS#45 will earn another four years, or whether the United States will have elected its POTUS #46.

    And in the process also electing the first female Vice President in its history.

    Maybe that’s the surprise, albeit the November one?