Is FBI email probe this election’s ‘October surprise’?

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U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks about the FBI inquiry into her emails during a campaign rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S. October 29, 2016.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX2R0GR

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ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: In U.S. elections, the term “October surprise” has come to mean an event in the closing weeks or days of a presidential campaign that could affect or even alter the outcome. The developing story about the FBI reviving its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server could qualify.

For more on the “October surprise” phenomenon, I’m joined from Santa Barbara, California, by “NewsHour Weekend” special correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

Jeff, let’s get a little bit of historical context. When has an October surprise affected the results of a presidential election?

JEFF GREENFIELD, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you can go back to 1960, whether John and Robert Kennedy got Martin Luther King out of a rural Georgia jail where his family feared for his life. King’s father who had endorsed Nixon switched his endorsement. There was a spike in African-American turnout in some big cities and very close states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, may well have changed and helped elect Kennedy because of that event.

You could point to Henry Kissinger, secretary of state, saying in 1972 that peace at hand in Vietnam, though Nixon was probably headed for a landslide. The use of George W. Bush’s youthful drunk driving arrests in closing days of 2000 campaign, his campaign blamed those stories for him closing the popular vote. John Kerry claimed that an Osama bin Laden in 2004 hurt him.

The most on point example of example was back in ’92 when a special prosecutor looking into the Reagan administration’s dealings with Iran pointed a finger at then-Vice President George Bush who was up for reelection, saying he might have known, and his campaign was very angry about that. So, we never quite know when these October surprises didn’t make a difference, but those are some plausible candidates.

STEWART: Up until this weekend, there were several contenders for the October surprise, and given this surprising election season overall, could there be October surprises this time around, plural?

GREENFIELD: You know, you can start with that “Access Hollywood” tape. You can talk about the WikiLeaks drip, drip, drip that seemed to raise questions about the Clinton Foundation. Certainly, FBI Director Comey’s statement, you know, so close to the election qualifies. And we should remember, who says there can’t be November surprises? We still have more than a week to go.

STEWART: The FBI’s director’s letter to Congress revealed that there were e-mails on Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s computer, but that’s just about it, just that there were emails, not much more information.

So, what position did that put candidate Clinton in in terms of her response?

GREENFIELD: It puts here, that campaign in an extremely difficulty position because they don’t know what they’re dealing with. That’s why apart from really raising the temperature on their criticisms of what Comey did, they’re demanding for a full accounting of these e-mails immediately. But it’s less so much what happens to her. It’s hard to imagine that somebody will change their minds if they voted for Clinton — thought about voting for Clinton before.

What this does is to encourage the Trump campaign because Republicans looking at polls, we could go, we’re thinking, well, maybe I won’t bother, looks like it’s all over. And so, what she has to worry about is less than erosion in her support than an increase in Trump’s support.

STEWART: Let’s talk about the down ballot races. They’re quite interesting. And obviously, the presidential election is affecting many of the down ballot races. Which ones stand out to you?

GREENFIELD: Well, the half dozen Senate races literally from one end of the country to the other, from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania to North Carolina, Wisconsin, Missouri, Nevada, I might be leaving out one, because the control of the Senate in my view is just about as important as who wins the White House.

There’s one way down ballot, out in Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, been there for 24 years, he’s the one who makes prisoners wear pink prison outfits, very, very tough on immigration, he has been the sheriff for 24 years and right now, it looks like he’s trailing badly. And for a lot of people who don’t like that hard line on immigration, the loss of that election by Joe Arpaio would be very disappointing or very gratifying.

STEWART: And that’s his — I think he’s going for a seventh term as sheriff, he’s 84 years old.

GREENFIELD: That’s the one. You know, there re a couple of others. I would point to a couple of congressional races. Darrell Issa in California, who’s been running endless investigations about Clinton and Obama, he’s in a very tough race, and that’s another one that if he were to lose, that would not break a lot of Democratic hearts.

STEWART: And Wisconsin has gotten surprisingly tight, correct?

GREENFIELD: Yes, all along the assumption was that Senator Johnson was going to lose to the man he defeated six years ago, Russ Feingold. For some reason, the campaign has been putting a lot of money into that state. I believe Secretary Clinton is visiting that state.

And again, when you have six Senate races that seemed close, anyone of them, the one in New Hampshire between governor and the incumbent senator, any one of them could tip balance of power, which in turn is going to affect everything from the Supreme Court to the new president’s legislative agenda.

STEWART: Jeff, at this point in the presidential election, the candidates would be making their closing arguments. This is how this last week would be spent. But given the untraditional nature of this election season in our multiple October surprises, what position are they in? Do they — can they make the closing argument, or they still have to fight?

GREENFIELD: I think the closing arguments for both campaigns are going to be aimed squarely at the mobilization. At this point, trying to persuade voters is probably a fools’ errand. So, in both camps, what you’re going to find is urgent appeals, “If you are for me, for heaven’s sakes, get out and vote”. And that’s why the ground game, the get out the vote operation, which normally is marginal, maybe accounts to one or two points, is so critical this election, particularly if the polls are right and that this race is tightening.

STEWART: Jeff Greenfield, thanks so much.

GREENFIELD: Thank you.

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