October is easily the spookiest month for presidential candidates, when pumpkins and scandals alike are ripe to be picked up by the public. The infamous October surprise—where a news event is timed to deliver a last-minute, crushing blow to a campaign—is nothing new. From Nixon’s 1972 announcement of a premature Vietnam peace agreement, to the 2000 discovery of Bush’s DUI, to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe in 2012, October surprises sneak up in often unpredictable ways.
While Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were swamped with October surprises this cycle, Trump was far more impacted, which proved a considerable stroke of luck for Secretary Clinton. WikiLeaks’s release of over 2,000 emails stolen from the account of Joe Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, was drowned out by the leaked recording of Trump making lewd comments about sexual assault that dominated news channels and flooded Facebook feeds for days. Compared to this implosion, Hillary’s WikiLeaks scandal crept through the news.
In comparison, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack in late July had a profound effect, creating near-apocalyptic fear right before the start of the party’s convention. DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign and Trump gained a slight, temporary lead in the polls. Why, then, is this most recent leak less emphasized in the media?
The answer boils down to timing. When juxtaposed with Trump’s October surprise, the vulgar secret recording, the content of Podesta’s emails is not outwardly repulsive. The emails raise questions about the nuances of campaign ethics and integrity of the candidate—not an outright promotion of sexual assault. Instead, the most pressing risk Clinton faces is the continuing decline in her favorability ratings. Although there is nothing particularly devastating within the emails, they have the potential to provoke contempt. As Clinton herself acknowledged in an email, writing, “Politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it has always been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be.” For instance, in one email, a staffer sent a list of potential vice presidential candidates broken up into “food groups” based on identity. And though voters like the “taste” of diversity, they would prefer not to read a list with a structure that emphasizes demographic attributes over merit.
Much of the content is not very scandalous, instead reaffirming existing concerns over Clinton and providing insights into how her campaign functions. According to James Glaser, the Dean of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Tufts, the impacts of this leak “are modest but they help to feed and nurture suspicion of the Clintons, and because they fit into a previously established storyline about trust and judgment, they have some potency.” He predicted the leaks will not shift polls due to existing political polarization, a dearth of remaining undecided voters, and the fact that this is not opening up a new scandal. However, her reputation is damaged, he said, touching upon the reopening of her FBI investigation to argue, “Part of her defense was that she had been cleared of these things, and now that gets chipped away.” As Trump continues to label her as “Crooked” Hillary and only three in 10 voters trust her take on special interests, the last thing she needs is to expand Trump’s potential arsenal of attacks.
For instance, though Trump has repeatedly accused the Clinton Foundation of quid pro quo—providing favors in exchange for something in return—without sound evidence, he can now draw upon two pieces of information to back his allegations. First, the emails revealed that a private audit was conducted and concluded the foundation was creating potential conflicts of interest; second, Qatari officials offered Bill Clinton a one-million dollar gift on his birthday while Hillary was secretary of state. Whether or not quid pro quo actually occurred, the emails give the illusion that corruption is rampant within the Clinton family.
Trump could also now use a leaked email with the subject “AWKWARD,” which highlights controversial statements from her Wall Street speeches. Though there is not anything particularly damaging within the speeches, Clinton tried to shield herself from transparency to avoid being called a flip-flopper. She publicly denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership in her campaign, but she gave remarks in 2013 that praised, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.” And while she boasted that she would stand up to Wall Street, she told bankers directly, “The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.” This explicitly strengthens Clinton’s ties to special interests—an image that she has struggled to shake. Voters might interpret Clinton as cozying up to Wall Street, perpetuating the “Crooked” Hillary nickname, and could demoralize the progressive wing of the party.
Trump could also use the emails to attack her on insincerity. Virtually every politician needs to deliberate over the political ramifications of taking certain stances—this is an intrinsic aspect of the “sausage making” in American politics. Voters, however, would prefer to think of their candidate as righteous and principled, not calculating and opportunist. As Dean Glaser noted, “Voters tend not to like certain aspects of the political process—even the healthy parts” and that “they want to know that their leader has principles and lives by those principles.” The emails only fuel criticism that Clinton takes the stance that will get her elected. For instance, one staffer warned that if Clinton failed to support reinstating Glass-Steagall, then Elizabeth Warren might endorse primary challenger Bernie Sanders instead. Rather than seeing discussion focused on the merits and shortfalls of Glass-Steagall, voters instead witness her campaign dwelling on losing the progressive vote—a politically calculated move. Russell Berman of the Atlantic best expressed the danger of this impression: “They capture a candidate, and a campaign, that seems in private exactly as cautious, calculating, and politically flexible as they appeared to be in public.”
The main criticisms stemming from the email hack are a reflection of Clinton’s larger issue with transparency. Though she would prefer to cloak herself when politics becomes “unsavory,” the truth is that such actions are constantly challenged in the 21st century. In the past, as Political Science Professor Ioannis Evrigenis described, “Subjects in [Machievelli’s] day would observe from the town square—they would look at the palace and observe that there are physical barriers to see what goes on beyond closed doors.” Now, however, in the age of 24-hour news coverage, social media, and the risk of hacking, candidates are exposed to more transparency—they must maintain the appearance of virtue, as Machiavelli famously urged.
A candidate must be concerned about this virtue, and when a scandal breaks, Evrigenis explained they will seek to recover by giving the event “a spin of virtue” or justifying it as “an aberration in what is otherwise virtuous behavior.” Clinton has employed the latter defense all along the campaign trail, such as giving a candid apology for her mistake in a presidential debate. Yet, with this issue constantly reemerging, she must always be alert of its potency.
Art by Bruno Olmedo