It is perhaps the most potent adage in politics: polls ain’t votes. Entering October, the incumbent president is ahead in most national surveys, from Rasmussen to the Des Moines Register. He’s even ahead in so-called “swing” states where the pundits tell us the election will be decided ultimately. The Associated Press Sunday speculated that if the election were held today, Barack Obama would win.
But it’s not being held today, or even tomorrow. The election is held November 6, and by then, Mitt Romney could win.
The first October Surprise was probably Lyndon Johnson’s, back in 1968. After a tumultuous primary season, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was on the hustings for the Democrats against Richard Nixon. Polls had the two almost dead even when, in an unanticipated turn of events, LBJ announced an October 30 halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, lending credence to Humphrey’s claim that he could end the Asian war. Humphrey got a poll bump, but Nixon got the voter bump, and, under new GOP management, the war went on.
Henry Kissinger brought the surprise next time. In 1972,George McGovern was the anti-war Democratic candidate. Nixon had a huge polling lead as the election neared, but remember, he was so paranoid, he’d had the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel ransacked earlier in the year. He wasn’t much for leaving matters to chance.
Nixon knew he was vulnerable to claims that he had failed to live up to his 1968 promise to end the war. So, less than two weeks before Election Day, out of nowhere, Secretary of State Kissinger busted a move, saying, “Peace is at hand.” There was a GOP landslide that November, but the war would drag on three years more.
The 1980 October Surprise may be the most famous. Incumbent Jimmy Carter was on duty when 52 Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, and his inability to facilitate the rescue or release of the hostages was a major campaign issue as he ran for re-election against Ronald Reagan. Though negotiations had been ongoing during the campaign, days before the election Carter announced simultaneously with the Iranian government that the hostages would not be released until after the election.
Carter was trounced. When the hostages were released literally minutes after Reagan’s inaugural address, it led to allegations that the crisis had been manipulated by GOP interests to ensure a Reagan win. Congressional committees investigated those allegations twice, but never substantiated them.
The 1992 October Surprise was the indictment of Reagan’s secretary of defense, Casper Weinberger, for lying to counsel about his participation in the Iran-Contra affair, with which GOP candidate George H.W. Bush was peripherally connected. Bill Clinton wound up making the first Bush a one-termer.
Then, in 2000, when another Bush was running, news broke that George W. had once been arrested for DUI. In what month did that headline break? October.
Sometimes, the October Surprise doesn’t happen in the USA. That was the case in 2004, when John Kerry’s electoral hopes were likely dashed by the late Osama bin Laden, who released a video less than a week before Election Day taking responsibility for the events of 9/11.
And sometimes, the October Surprise doesn’t even happen in October. In 2008, the factor that changed the election took place in September: the crash of the American financial system.
So here we are in October, month of surprises. What could possibly await us all?
It could be something sweet. The candidates might get pro-active, with Obama mass-mailing certificates good for discounts on your purchase of a Chevy Volt, or Romney offering free nights at participating Marriott hotels. It could happen in the secondary tier, with Paul Ryan hospitalized in the aftermath of a P90X workout gone awry, or Joe Biden running off with that biker chick he met on the campaign trail in Ohio.
The October Surprise might be an inadvertent utterance during one of the presidential debates. Both of the candidates have been known to let the wrong words slip during forensic byplay, and we can always hope for a Spoonerism to drop. Because of this week’s deadlines, though, if there was a cool gaffe Wednesday night, I’m afraid this column and the Birmingham News both missed it.
If I had to put money on it, and I hope I don’t unless you’re willing to hold a check till payday, I’d bet on a foreign policy occurrence, and I’d be inclined to look in the direction of the most heavily armed democracy in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been awfully vocal of late concerning his neighbors in Iran and their nuclear meth labs. He’s got to be a trifle concerned that Obama doesn’t back Israel’s play as adamantly as previous administrations, and that Iran’s atomic plants might soon be hidden beyond the capabilities of the Israeli air force to take them out before nukes start rolling off the assembly line. Therefore, you can certainly put Bibi down in the “Maybe” column for an OS.
However, the most likely October Surprise isn’t much of a surprise at all. Politics wonks will have noticed that the Mitt has spent less time on public rallies (leaving a lot of gladhanding to Paul Ryan) than on private fundraising events. Those Romney coffers are chock-full of cash, likewise those of his Super PAC allies, and it doesn’t take a Distant Early Warning system to realize that the GOP is well prepared to drop a giant moneybomb at any moment.
Reports of the Romney campaign pulling advertising from swing states didn’t indicate it was abandoning those states. What’s more, off the radar, such operatives as Karl Rove and Ralph Reed have been spending big sums on what will be the most comprehensive GOP get-out-the-vote effort ever.
Republicans are going green in October. That’s not going to be good news for the Democrats’ environment.