IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Watch Out for Surprises: What Could Upend Politics in 2016?

What surprises might lie ahead in the 2016 presidential election? The past gives some clues.
Get more newsLiveon

Elections are about policies, platforms, and ideas. Unless, they’re not. A number of unexpected factors can pop up throughout the course of the campaign. Some disappear from the headlines and turn out to be nothing more than a footnote in history. Others, however, influence voters and serve as lessons for future campaigns. Here are just a few things can swing an election:

The Scandal

Nothing can shake up a campaign like a classic scandal. Whether it’s or an ongoing affair, past indiscretions, or bribery, the bombshell revelation can change the outlook of an entire campaign.

One of the most famous examples came from Democrat Gary Hart. The former Colorado senator was a front-runner to capture the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, and rivals began circulating rumors about his history as a womanizer. The Miami Herald followed a woman from Florida to Washington, D.C., where they observed her at Hart’s home. The story published the same day Hart told The New York Times Magazine, “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored.” A week later Hart was out of the race, even though both he and the woman denied having a sexual relationship. (He later re-entered the race, but failed to gain much traction and withdrew again in March of 1988.)

During a contentious GOP primary battle in 2012, Herman Cain had soared to the top of the primary polls. But he was not there for long before a report that women who worked with Cain at the National Restaurant Association had filed complaints against him for inappropriate behavior. Cain’s run ended after a woman had said she had carried on a 13-year affair with the Georgia businessman.

Natural and Unnatural Disasters

On Oct. 29, 2012, just eight days ahead of the election, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the United States. Both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney halted their campaigns to focus on the recovery efforts. One of the lasting political images from the storm was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the prime time speaker at the 2012 GOP convention, embracing Obama and praising his leadership in response to the storm.

Some Republicans felt Christie, a popular surrogate for the campaign, had hurt the party by offering such strong praise of the president with just days to go ahead of the election.

“I wish the hurricane hadn’t happened when it did because it gave the president the chance to be presidential and to be out showing sympathy for folks,” Romney later said in 2013.”That’s one of the advantages of incumbency.”

Of course, unnatural tragedies have factored into electoral politics as well. In 2002, the incumbent president’s party (Republicans) gained seats in both the House and Senate as September 11, 2001, and the war on terror dominated the campaign. And many Republicans feel the financial collapse of 2008 crushed McCain’s chances, with polling that showed voters most concerned about the economy favoring Obama by wide margins.

The Gaffe

Gaffes come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it’s not just what a candidate says, but how he or she says it. Take Howard Dean’s 2004 “Dean Scream,” for example. After a third place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Dean hoped to excite supporters with a passionate speech pledging to continue his campaign after the setback. Dean said his campaign was going to continue to New Hampshire onward: “And then we're going to Washington, D.C.—to take back the White House—YEEEEEAHHH!" The easily mock-able scream was replayed over and over on cable TV and late night.

The Romney family has their own unique history with gaffes. Michigan Gov. George Romney was a frontrunner to capture the GOP presidential nomination in 1968. But in an interview in the fall of 1967, Romney suggested he had been “brainwashed” by the U.S. military into supporting the Vietnam war. And during Mitt Romney’s 2012 run, the GOP nominee was surreptitiously recorded at a fundraiser saying 47 percent of voters would choose Obama “no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government.”

"My job is not to worry about those people," Romney said. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

The video hurt Romney’s campaign by reinforcing the narrative that the former Massachusetts governor is out of touch with lower-income Americans.

The October Surprise

The now legendary campaign term refers to a last minute move that can shake up a race just days before the election. The origins of the phrase are disputed, but the 1968 campaign is one of the most often cited examples of such a surprise. In the days leading up to the presidential election between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon Johnson announced an end to U.S. airstrikes in Vietnam. The news was thought to be a significant breakthrough for the prospects of peace and gave a bump in the polls to Vice President Humphrey. Nixon, however, would go on to defeat Humphrey.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s campaign feared such a surprise could come if President Jimmy Carter was able to strike a deal to free American hostages in Iran. No such deal occurred, and the hostages were freed just hours after Reagan’s inauguration, prompting some Democrats to accuse the Reagan campaign of striking a secret deal to prevent their release until after the election. A bipartisan group of lawmakers later concluded there was no merit to the accusations.

On the Friday before the 2000 election, news broke that George Bush had been arrested for driving drunk 24 years earlier. The story became little more than a footnote in 2000 presidential election, as Bush went on to win the presidency while Al Gore captured the popular vote.

The VP Pick

As much attention as we pay to the “Veep stakes,” most studies have found that the pick does little to win votes. It can, however, cause unwanted headaches and take campaigns off message in the days and weeks ahead of an election. The most recent example was in 2008 when John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his No. 2. McCain initially got a bounce but her performance during media appearances -- most notably the interview with Katie Couric where she struggled to answer which newspapers she reads -- overshadowed the McCain campaign in the weeks after her surprise pick.

Gov. Sarah Palin, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels during the 'Palin Press Conference' skit on October 18, 2008.Dana Edelson / NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

One of the most notable VP blunders took place in 1972 when George McGovern chose political up-and-comer Thomas Eagleton after a number of other Democrats had passed on the chance. Under pressure to choose a running mate at the Democratic National Convention, McGovern turned to Eagleton with little vetting. Within days, rumors began floating about Eagleton’s medical history. It turned out that the Missouri senator had been hospitalized for depression three different times and had undergone electroshock therapy. The pressure mounted for McGovern to remove Eagleton from the ticket. Eighteen days after being picked, Eagleton announced he would not be on the ticket. McGovern went on to lose to Richard Nixon in a landslide.