No one expected the “October Surprise” of the 2016 campaign to be a video with a member of the Bush family recorded on his way to a cameo in a soap opera. Nor did anyone expect the second presidential debate to take on the air of pro wrestling.
But Donald J. Trump’s decade-old lewd remarks, and his sexual braggadocio, on the set of “Access Hollywood” with host Billy Bush have thrown the presidential election into upheaval. The video prompted Republican Party leaders to assess their options, created fresh unease among GOP congressional and gubernatorial candidates who have extended a tentative embrace to Trump, and added new drama to Sunday night’s debate at Washington University in St. Louis.
That debate swiftly deteriorated into a he-said/she-said battle, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton questioning Trump’s fitness for office and Trump asserting that his rival deserved to be in jail. The two bickered over who was the bigger enemy of women. And they called each other liars.
The 2016 campaign has been unprecedented in the unpredictable forces it has unleashed, in the new frontiers of campaign comportment it has created, in the chaos it has sown in established party alignments, and the unease it has created among party leaders and voters.
One of the early casualties was in redefining the boundaries of acceptable campaign language.
That was before crude anatomical descriptions and coarse casual conversation became a potential turning point in the campaign. Even in a country that endured the presidential impeachment of Bill Clinton, preceded by a report from independent counsel Kenneth Starr that shared many elements with pornography, the remarks of Trump shook the country.
Like the course of the campaign, the implications of this episode are impossible to predict. But at the very least, Trump, whose debate preparations were disrupted by the furor over his remarks, faces possible erosion of support from members of several vital voter groups, not least of them women, whose support he struggled to win long before the release of this video.
Also at risk: Support from Republican candidates who were reluctant to back him in the first place; the GOP establishment, which has regarded him with fear and contempt and has in large measure withheld its support; religious conservatives who were troubled by his three marriages and now have reason to reassess their support; some late adherents to the Trump cause who, unlike the Trump True Believers, supported the message while retaining their skepticism of the messenger.
Those who have been with Trump from the start, and who regard his rough edges and many of his profane comments as a refreshing antidote to “political correctness,” are unlikely to be jarred by the episode. The size of that core is difficult to determine, but it does not approach an electoral majority.
Seldom has a presidential campaign faced a challenge of this magnitude — though Trump dramatically turned the tables on his rival just 90 minutes before the debate by assembling a panel of women who themselves accused Bill Clinton of sexual crimes.
The only precedents for the Trump imbroglio occurred earlier in the election cycle than this one, a month before Election Day and as some Americans are taking advantage of early-voting procedures in their states or are casting absentee ballots.
The two recent comparisons involved running mates rather than presidential nominees themselves, and each has a rich resonance among political professionals, who cultivate a knowledge of these sorts of episodes.
The most famous involves charges that Sen. Richard M. Nixon had a “slush fund,” a claim that roiled the 1952 presidential campaign in late September, unsettled GOP nominee Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and prompted Nixon to go on the air with what is now known as the “Checkers Speech.” Nixon’s treacly remarks, which included an appeal to Eisenhower that the nominee found cloying and an appeal to the public that helped save Nixon’s place on the ticket, are remembered for his reference to his wife’s “Republican cloth coat” and to the story about a cocker spaniel sent to the Nixons by a supporter in Texas and that Tricia Nixon, then 6 years old, named Checkers.
“The kids, like all kids, love the dog,” Nixon said, “and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” Though the speech became regarded as a prime example of campaign camp and cant, Nixon kept his position as the Republican vice presidential nominee and assumed that position in 1953.
Two decades later, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, selected Sen. Thomas Eagleton as his running mate.
Then news reporters discovered that Eagleton had received shock treatment, prompting Democratic Party leaders to worry that a ticket that already had a whiff of doom would be fatally hurt. McGovern originally pronounced himself “1,000 percent” behind his running mate, a remark that would soon haunt him as Eagleton was forced from the ticket and replaced by R. Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy relative by marriage with solid liberal credentials. Months later the Democrats lost every state but Massachusetts. Eventually Eagleton took a position at Washington University — the venue for the Sunday debate.
Eisenhower and to a lesser extent Nixon — a two-term House member who had won a difficult Senate race two years earlier and, as a dedicated Cold Warrior, was seen as a symbol of the new generation of World War II Republican politicians — had the trust of the party leadership. Trump does not.
But Trump has triumphed by showing, and occasionally amplifying, his contempt for the party whose nomination he won. He has also made a virtue of his miscues, an approach he reached for Friday evening when he acknowledged his faults but swiftly explained that his national campaign had rendered him a changed man, arguing that the remarks “don’t reflect who I am.”
That once again is at the center of a political campaign that a year ago seemed to be a referendum on his opponent. Since the beginning of the year, the campaign has instead largely been a referendum on Trump, and now more than ever the choice in November is over, as the candidate himself put it in the middle of his current crisis, “who I am.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.