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Commentary: Bombshell of Donald Trumps tax returns may be first of more October surprises

SYDNEY: Its unlikely The New York Times publication of Donald Trumps tax records just before the first presidential candidates debate was a coincidence.

This looks like a classic example of what political scientists and commentators call an “October surprise” – a news story deliberately timed to influence the US presidential election.



Much is at stake – the presidency, as well the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate.

What is in the minds of voters before they vote is crucial. This gives interested parties great incentive to strategically time the release of information they might have been holding on to for some time.

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A well-timed “bombshell” can sway the outcome. But what is the best timing? The first Tuesday in November is still a long way off. Why not wait?


Remember 2016, when both Trump and rival Hillary Clinton faced last-minute scandals.

Trump had his “Access Hollywood tape”, featuring him talking crudely about women. The Washington Post published the tape on Oct 7, 2016, two days before his second debate with Clinton.

Given the recording was from 2005, it is hard to conclude the timing of the Posts publication wasnt strategic – if not by the newspaper then by the source of the material.

But this October surprise arguably proved far less damaging than the bombshell that hit Clinton just 11 days before the election, when FBI director James Comey announced the bureau was reopening its investigation into Clintons use of a private email server while US Secretary of State.

A combination of file photos show U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. April 9, 2018 and former FBI Director James Comey on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 8, 2017. (File photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria, Jonathan Ernst)

The FBI had previously investigated and deemed Clinton and her team extremely careless in not using secure government emails to handle classified information. But it recommended no charges.

The case was reopened when more emails, sent by Clinton aide Huma Abedin on the laptop of her husband Anthony Weiner, were found. Making the story even juicier was that the FBI found the emails while investigating Weiner for sending sexually explicit messages to a 15-year-old girl.

While there is no suggestion Comeys announcement was a deliberate October surprise, its timing certainly didnt help Clinton. Nothing came of the reopened case. Had Comey made the announcement a few weeks earlier, the election might have gone to Clinton.


The superficial lesson from 2016 might appear to be that the closer to the election you can drop a bombshell, the better.

Indeed analysis of political scandals since the late 1970s show more occur with as an election get closer.

But too many scandals bunched too close to an election is likely to blunt their impact. Voters might rationally assume scandals are more likely to be fake the closer they erupt to Election Day.

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They have good reason to be sceptical. It is also rational for anyone wanting to influence the outcome with fake news to deny voters the time to distinguish between fact and fiction.

In fact, my analysis with colleagues Gabriele Gratton and Anton Kolotilin (in the Review of Economic Studies) shows fake scandals are more likely closer to elections.

This includes “Billygate” claims in October 1980 that President Jimmy Carters brother Billy was a Libyan agent of influence, and “Filegate” claims in 1996 the Clinton White House had improperly acquired access to FBI files on political opponents.

So there is a strategic trade-off between credibility and scrutiny.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the first presidential debate with President Donald Trump Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: AP/Julio Cortez)

On the one hand, dropping the bombshell earlier is more credible, in thRead More – Source