Avoiding the October Surprise

EquipGOP preparing for the October Surprise

In early months of the 2000 presidential election, then-Gov. George W. Bush was asked by about allegations of prior alcohol and drug use. Bush responded by saying, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”

Many felt that was an admission of drug use and others thought he was admitting to doing foolish things but not specifically drugs. The debate about the answer consumed several news cycles but then petered out. By Election Day voters had largely forgotten W’s youthful indiscretions or accepted them as just part of his biography.

Contrast this with the “October Surprise” of George W. Bush’s 1976 drunk driving arrest that came out just five days before the election. The campaign’s tracking poll saw his numbers dip. Karl Rove had said he believed the story nearly cost Bush the election.

Why was the public’s reaction so different between allegations of drug use and a DWI when both happened more than 24 years earlier?

Why was the public’s reaction so different between allegations of drug use and a DWI when both happened more than 24 years earlier?

You might think, “Well the media played up the drunk driving arrest to influence the election.” There may be some truth in that, but there is a more comprehensive, scientific explanation.

As individuals, we tend to adapt to change quickly and usually much quicker than we would imagine. If you’re a parent, you remember how quickly you adapted to the new reality of your first child. After a chaotic first few weeks, a new normal sets in and you start to feel in control of your life again (albeit with much less sleep).

This is referred to as hedonic adaptation. Following large life changes, most individuals eventually return to the baseline level of happiness and contentment they felt before the event. It doesn’t matter if it’s a positive or negative change, people will quickly adjust.

Remember in summer 2008 when gas prices spiked? There was endless media attention, angry motorists spouting expletives and chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill” at political rallies. Today, gas is still $3 a gallon and people have moved on with their lives. Sure it’s inconvenient but it’s life and we got used to it. Hedonic adaption.

This also applies when it comes to our perceptions of candidates. People who were generally inclined to support Bush heard about the allegations of drug use early in the campaign and may have been disappointed. But after they adjusted to the new information their baseline of support returned. The problem with the DWI story was it came out so close to the election. There wasn’t much time for voters to process the information, accept it and return to their support baseline.

This didn’t cost Bush the election, but had the information come out sooner he may have won Florida by more than 537 votes—sparing the nation an 35 day recount and Supreme Court case that left the presidency and Bush’s own political future hanging in the balance. 

What does this mean for candidates?

The simple lesson of hedonic adaption is air your dirty laundry early. Recognize the mistakes you made and control how and when they come to light. Give voters plenty of time—months, not days—before the election to accept these facts about you so they become old news. Whatever you do, don’t have skeletons in your closet that you hope no one will find out.

A recent example of this is Allan Fung, a GOP candidate for governor of Rhode Island. Two weeks ago he told The Providence Journal about a car accident that happened 25 years ago when he was 18 driving home from college. He lost consciousness at the wheel and hit and killed a man changing a tire in the breakdown lane. He was arrested and changed with driving to endanger. A grand jury later chose not to indict him and his record was expunged.

The media followed up with the victim’s sister and she discussed the accident and how Fung and his family had tried to make it right and “People should not hold that against him”.

What’s interesting about this story is that Alan Fung first told the Providence Journal about this in 2002 when filling out a questionnaire for a city council run. They chose not to report it at the time, but it showed Fung’s honesty and acknowledgement of the tragedy he caused. Now, if Fung’s opponents try to bring the accident up during the campaign voters will know this is nothing knew and learned about it from Fung himself.

Bottom line; take the time to think about your past and what could be used against you and get it out early. Let hedonic adaption work its magic. With enough time, mistakes from your past will be something voters learn to live with.

Note: A final word about full disclosure, not everything is forgivable to voters. 

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About the Author

Trevor Bragdon

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Hi, I’m the founder of EquipGOP. Every election cycle I meet smart, hardworking Republicans who are running for the first time but don’t know where to start. EquipGOP's goal is to help these local Republican candidates learn tactics and strategies they need to win on Election Day.