Nothing like issue of illegal immigration to get people worked up. Today's NY Times poll taken with Democratic and Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire find that the topic is of serious concern to 86% of GOP'ers and 59% of Democrats, giving Iraq a nudge out of the way. Newspapers today also report that Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York will abandon his plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, citing strong opposition.
With Hillary's lead a bit unstable (after her own immigration wibble-wobble) and neither Mitt and Rudy pulling away to a clear cut lead in the early Iowa and New Hampshire going, illegal aliens is an issue that could be a deal-breaker for most voters.
It certainly was on October 20, 1880, as James Garfield was locked in a tight election race with Winfield Hancock. In what is probably the first recorded October Surprise, a newspaper improbably called The New York Truth printed a letter purportedly written by Garfield to an H.L. Morey of the Employers Union of Lynn, Massachusetts. In it Garfield wrote that the “Chinese problem” (i.e. the fears of whites in the West that Chinese immigrants would take jobs from them) was not a problem at all, and that employers had the right “to buy labor where they can get it the cheapest.”
This struck terror into those who had been trying to keep the Chinese out of America, particularly Californians. Garfield, who had spent mot of his campaign sidestepping this delicate issue, certainly did not write “the Morey letter,” and was very convincingly able to refute it—investigation showed that there was no Morey and no Lynn, Massachusetts, Employers Union, either. The letter was traced, in fact, to the hand of one Kenward Philp, a Truth journalist who was later arrested and indicted for fraud.
Despite the fact that Garfield was able to prove his innocence, the Morey letter hurt him. It caused him to lose California, which almost caused him to lose the close election of 1880.