international analysis and commentary

Putin’s ‘October surprise’ and the US election


It’s not even October and already the U.S. presidential election has had a few surprises: Donald Trump’s attack on the family of a veteran and Hillary Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia, to name a few. But perhaps the biggest surprise thus far has been the cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee (DNC), potentially supported by the Russian government. Analysis of the DNC hack has highlighted Trump’s strange obsession with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin; but, perhaps more importantly, the DNC hack may be a harbinger of things to come, and the real surprise will emerge in October.

October surprises have often been international in nature. For example, just prior to the 1992 election, former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger was indicted in the Iran contra scandal, potentially hurting George H.W. Bush’s candidacy. In 1980, the Iran hostage crisis figured heavily in both sides’ campaign strategy and Reagan feared that it could be resolved before the election, essentially helping Carter. What would make a follow-on DNC hack unique would be the intentional manipulation by a foreign power to introduce an October surprise.

Much analysis has been conducted into the DNC hack, and US intelligence has “high confidence” the attacks originated with Russian intelligence forces, but it remains unclear if these were sanctioned by the Kremlin leadership. Here’s what we do know: in April 2016 the DNC noticed attacks on its servers and hired CrowdStrke, a security firm, to investigate. CrowdStrke identified the attacks as coming from two sources linked to different Russian intelligence agencies. When the DNC went public with this information, an allegedly lone hacker, Guccifer 2.0, claimed responsibility for the hacks, and transferred emails to Wikileaks, 19,000 of which were then published on 22 July. Guccifer also claims to have emails from Clinton’s time as Secretary of State. If this is any demonstration of the brazenness of the perpetrator- whether that be an independent hacker, group of hackers, or either but with Russian backing- further cyberattacks seems like a potential October surprise for the DNC.

A Russian October surprise could have at least three outcomes, depending on the content of the released files and how the candidates respond. The first possible outcome would be a damaging impact on the Clinton campaign. Clinton’s personal server has already raised doubts about her decision-making and any additional leak, regardless of the content, could further contribute to that perception.

Second, further attacks may have no impact on voter perceptions. This seems like the most likely scenario, again depending on the content of the emails. The 2016 election looks unlikely to be decided by foreign policy issues, but rather economics and social values will play the deciding role. Indeed, past Presidents have survived October surprises, such as Johnson when China tested its first nuclear weapons just before his election over Barry Goldwater.

Third, perhaps ironically, a Russian-backed October surprise cyberattack on Clinton may hurt Trump’s election chances. A YouGov poll showed the majority of people looked unfavourably on Trump’s response to the earlier DNC hack, and labelled his calls for Russia to publish Clinton’s emails “inappropriate”, including 32% of Republicans. Any perception of a Trump-Putin alliance has potential to backfire, with two out of three Americans viewing Putin as an enemy.

Were Russia to support further cyberattacks on Clinton and the publication of any files, this should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of Putin’s support for Trump. Rather it would be a sign of Putin’s desire to have influence on U.S. politics and the geostrategic environment in which he operates. Putin’s preference is for an American president who contributes to his narrative of a rising Russia and falling America. Trump allows Putin to portray the image of a disjointed, irrational United States that makes Putin look stable by comparison, both politically and psychologically. Thus far, Russia has denied any involvement in the DNC hack, as narrated by a state-sponsored news organization, Sputnik, with articles claiming there was “no chance” Russia was behind the attack and citing an Israeli new agency that claims CrowdStrike’s findings came much too quickly to have conclusively found Russia to be involved.

It is useful to recall that Putin and Trump have never actually met despite ties between the Trump campaign leadership and Trump’s admiration for Putin as a “strong leader.” Putin called him “colourful”, but has not said much else. Trump describes their relationship as “sort of semi-nice” because Putin “said very nice things about me.”

Why does Trump admire Putin? The most useful analogy may be with the show business: Why do people admire the Kardashians? The simple answer id envy and entertainment. Trump admires Putin’s “strong man” image and leadership, but American voters seem to recognize that beneath this veneer is an autocrat who is acting in opposition to the interests of America and its allies. Accord to Trump, “In terms of leadership, he’s getting an A”, but in terms of aligning with American interests, the American public might score him closer to a D. Whether or not Putin proves to be the surprise that undermines either campaign will have to wait until October.