We Have a Winner
Actually, 10 of them. The October Surprise contest is over at last.

BY JAMES TARANTO, Friday, December 15, 2000

"It's going to be a long night," a friend and Bush adviser said to me in late October, looking ahead to election night. That turns out to have been the understatement of the year. It was 6 p.m. on the East Coast when the first polls closed Nov. 7, in Indiana and Kentucky. Eight hundred sixty-seven hours later, Al Gore delivered his concession speech.

The Florida firestorm gave us a lot to write about on OpinionJournal, but it also left us with some unfinished business. For one thing, there was our October Surprise contest. When we started the contest the day after Labor Day--asking readers to guess what President Clinton would do in October to influence the election--we promised to announce the winners "shortly after the election," and we will do so in a moment.

First, a few words about OpinionJournal. When we launched the site late in July, we joined the fast-moving discourse on the Web, where some of the most interesting political discussions are taking place. We aimed to expand the journalistic capabilities of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, freeing ourselves from the physical constraints of print publication and enabling ourselves to cover breaking news more quickly than ever.

Two of our columnists deserve special recognition in this regard: John Fund and Peggy Noonan. Mr. Fund, a member of the Journal's editorial board, typically writes several times a week for his Political Diary, which combines reporting, analysis and commentary. Ms. Noonan, the celebrated Reagan speechwriter who is now a contributing editor of the Journal, writes a weekly column. Well, we call it a weekly column, but she often surprises us with an extra essay--as she did on Wednesday, when she weighed in with a sensitive, perceptive memo to Al Gore on how he should concede the presidency.

In addition, our Best of the Web Today feature has evolved into a running commentary on the news, posted every weekday in the early afternoon. The day before the election, Robert L. Bartley, the Journal's editor, described in this column how Mr. Fund, Ms. Noonan and Best of the Web Today gave up-to-the-minute coverage of the 11th-hour revelation of George W. Bush's 24-year-old drunk-driving conviction--a story that broke on a Thursday night, after the deadline for Friday's Journal, and thus one that in the pre-Internet age we wouldn't have been able to cover until Monday morning.

Readers seem to like what we offer; by all measures the site has been successful beyond our expectations. In the month of November, we received more than three million visits from more than a million unique visitors who read nearly eight million pages. As we look ahead to a new year and a new administration, our basic challenge remains the same: to offer the most intelligent, timely and hard-hitting commentary on the Web.

You may have noticed a few changes on the site over the past few months:

• Last month we introduced a new columnnist, Pete du Pont, former governor of Delaware. His "Outside the Box" column appears Wednesdays.

• In September we introduced another new columnist, Tunku Varadarajan, deputy editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal. His "Citizen of the World" runs Mondays.

• In the weeks following Election Day, we rolled out our Hail to the Chief feature, building on a survey in which the Journal and the Federalist Society asked scholars to rate all the presidents. The survey results and the essays that followed will remain on the site, a trove of information for history buffs. Hail to the Chief was edited by Brendan Miniter, who in September joined OpinionJournal as assistant editor.

• Because of other obligations, Mark Helprin has discontinued his weekly "Written on Water" column. He remains a contributing editor of the Journal and his work will appear occasionally both in the paper and on the site.

Our other columnists--Tom Bray, Collin Levey, Seth Lipsky, Claudia Rosett and Kim Strassel--will all continue to write. And we'll keep publishing Robert Bartley's and Paul Gigot's columns as well as selected other stories from The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

In due course we'll unveil other new OpinionJournal features. Stay tuned.

As we posted entries in the October Surprise contest, we noticed two things. First, a fair number of the 716 reader entries we posted were, shall we say, rather far-fetched. One common prediction was that Mr. Clinton would resign so as to give Mr. Gore the advantage of incumbency. Another was that the president would declare a state of emergency as a pretext to remain in power.

Second, in part because of these far-out entries, some people found the whole exercise offensive--a slander on Messrs. Clinton and Gore, an outlet for right-wing paranoia. M.M. Manring of Columbia, Mo., submitted the following entry, posted on Sept. 8: "Mr. Clinton, in a nationally televised address, urges all Americans to read the OpinionJournal Web site. When voters see how bizarre and paranoid the president's most ardent critics have become, they line up to vote for Al Gore." Alas, the president never saw fit to give us the free advertising.

There's no denying this has been a surprising year. Imagine if someone, way back in September, had submitted the following entry:

Mr. Gore slightly outpolls Mr. Bush in the nationwide popular vote, but Mr. Bush wins the election with 271 electoral votes. Mr. Gore concedes, then withdraws his concession, since Mr. Bush has won Florida, the pivotal state, by fewer than 2,000 votes. A recount cuts his lead in half. Then Mr. Gore demands more recounts. He claims some voters were confused by the ballots and voted for Pat Buchanan instead of him. He wants the most heavily Democratic counties in the state to count as Gore votes "dimpled chads"--ballots that haven't been punched for any candidate. He sends a team of trial lawyers to make the case in the courts. The Florida Supreme Court order another recount.

Mr. Gore's re-recount still gives Mr. Bush the lead, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Florida Supreme Court. But Mr. Gore keeps pressing his case. The Florida court ignores the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and orders a re-re-recount. At 10 p.m. on Dec. 12, the deadline for certifying presidential electors, the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling against the recounts, effectively making Mr. Bush president-elect. Liberals denounce the court for "judicial activism," but Mr. Gore delivers a statesmanlike concession speech.

Pretty nutty, huh?

Here are the 10 winners of the October Surprise contest. Each one will receive a year’s subscription to The Wall Street Journal Online:

1. The oily bird award. The first of many readers to predict that the administration would try to combat high oil prices with a release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was Frank Fahey of Baltimore, in an entry posted Sept. 7. Mr. Clinton announced on Sept. 22 that he would do so, after Mr. Gore urged him on.

2. The pregnant chad award I. In an entry posted Sept. 26, Peter Capra of Rocky Hill, Conn., predicted "approval of RU-486, aimed at the young woman vote." The Food and Drug administration certified the abortion pill on Sept. 28.

3. The Clinton award. Whether there was an October Surprise depends on what the meaning of "October Surprise" is. We have interpreted the term broadly, to refer to any surprise associated with this election. But we understand that there's also a plausible definition that relies on a Clintonian literalism: "an action undertaken by the Clinton administration in the month of October aimed at influencing the election." Some readers predicted that there would be no October Surprise, and under this literal definition they were right. The first was Steven Platzer of Chicago, just the third reader to enter the contest. In his entry, posted on Sept. 6, Mr. Platzer added that while there would be no October Surprise, "I am quite confident that this will not stop you from discerning some evil plot . . . some vile attempt to subvert the process of democracy, and some scheme to the block the return to power of the Bush men."

4. The debate award. The one event that was a bit surprising in October was the dismal performance of Al Gore, supposedly a master debater, in the three presidential face-offs. Mr. Bush seemed a bit unsure of himself in the first debate, but Mr. Gore was so obnoxious that hardly anyone noticed. In the second debate, Mr. Bush was impressive while Mr. Gore appeared to be on tranquilizers. In the third, the vice president was back in his menacing form, stalking across the stage in an apparent effort to intimidate the Texas governor.

In a tongue-in-cheek entry posted Sept. 26 and entitled "White House Smackdown!," James Roberts of Atlanta described a pro wrestling match featuring the vice president: "Mr. Gore enters carrying a half-scale blowup punching bag of George W. Bush. After some stretching, Mr. Gore warms up with some punches at Dubya. . . . As the cameras go off and the lights dim, Gore can be heard screaming 'Take this, Dubya, take that, I'm gonna win!" It didn't quite happen that way, but this came closer than any other entry to describing Mr. Gore's debate performances.

5. The DUI award. On Nov. 2, five days before Election Day, an eccentric Democratic lawyer from Maine, Tom Connolly, revealed that Mr. Bush had been cited for drunk driving in Kennebunkport 24 years earlier; Mr. Bush acknowledged it was true. This became the big story of the weekend before the election, and some observers say it's the reason the election was so close. It turned out Dick Cheney also had a drunk-driving record, way back in the early 1960s.

Many of our readers had predicted that Democrats would, at the 11th hour, dig up some sort of dirt on Mr. Bush. But no one got it as right as David Hoopman of Madison, Wis. In an entry posted on the very last day of the contest, Mr. Hoopman listed 10 tongue-in-cheek, off-the-wall predictions. Actually, only nine of them turned out to be off the wall. The penultimate one was this: "Networks to air nude Bush-Cheney high-speed drunk-driving home video as source keeps mum; embarrassed GOP questions authenticity (Friday, Nov. 3)."

Mr. Hoopman was off by 24 hours, and everyone involved kept his clothes on (for which all Americans can be grateful). Apart from these quibbles, though, his prediction was uncannily accurate.

No one quite predicted the astonishing events of election night and beyond. But several readers hinted at them, and we honor them now:

6. The biased county award. In an entry posted Sept. 27, Phil Hamm of Littleton, Colo., reported that his wife and daughter had both received absentee ballots in the mail. "Mr. Gore is behind in the polls with men and ahead with women," Mr. Hamm wrote. "Is my county bureaucracy controlled by partisan powers? Is yours?" Readers in Palm Beach and Broward might have interesting answers to Mr. Hamm's questions.

7. The pregnant chad award II. In an entry posted Sept. 14, Allan Radman of Aptos, Calif., wrote: "Hillary, Tipper, and Hadassah will all announce that they are pregnant. And, in a moment of confusion, Al Gore will announce on 'Larry King Live' that he too is pregnant. At the same time, Geraldo Rivera will attack Gov. Bush for not being pregnant." At the time, we thought this was merely a hoot. Who knew that ballots could get pregnant, let alone that Mr. Gore would base his postelection campaign on counting them?

8. The split decision award. In an entry dated Sept. 27, Melvin Rosenberg of Rosslyn, N.Y., predicted: "Mr. Gore will win the Electoral College vote, but Mr. Bush will win the popular vote. That will be only the third time in U.S. history. This time there will be a hue and cry to junk the winner-take-all concept of the 'college' and replace it with a pro rata distribution." Apart from the transposition of the candidates' names, Mr. Rosenberg's prediction was spot on. He also predicted (though not as part of the contest) that Hillary Clinton would be elected to the U.S. Senate. How about a recount on that one?

9. The Hillary '04 award. Getting the outcome exactly right was George Colombo of Winter Springs, Fla. In an entry posted Sept. 25, he wrote: "The best scenario for the Clintons would be for Al Gore to lose a close race and for Hillary to win in New York. That would set her up for a run in 2004."

Going through the actual events of the pre-election and postelection campaign brings us to nine out of 10 winners. We said we'd "judge entries on the basis of their overall insight and persuasiveness, though of course it doesn't hurt if your prediction comes true." The final winner is:

10. The cultural criticism award. Radio talk-show host Bob Just of Grants Pass, Ore., contributed an interesting essay on the nexus between politics and pop culture, which we posted Sept. 29 and entitled "Attack of the Killer Culture." Though it wasn't quite a prediction, we credit it with "overall insight" and award it our final prize.

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