Advancing a Free Society

It’s October: Surprise, Surprise, Surprise…

Monday, October 17, 2011

A year from now, two presidential campaigns will find themselves closing in on Election Day.

The one’s that trailing will hope for a sudden turn of events.

The one’s that leading will be dread the same: the so-called “October Surprise”.

Since the 1980 election and the Reagan campaign’s fear that a last-minute hostage deal would swing the outcome Jimmy Carter’s way, “October Surprise” is political shorthand for expecting the unexpected down the home stretch (credit for the phrase goes to both George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s running mate in 1980, and the late William Casey, who in 1968 feared a Vietnamese peace deal as a fly in the Nixon ointment).

More recently, “surprises” would include:

  • 2008. The Wall Street bailout (the crisis actually emerged in September, but Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act on the third day of October), after which the McCain never regained its footing.
  • 2006. Six-term Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigns amidst reports that he sent sexually explicit emails to at least one underage male ex-congressional page. Though technically this isn’t an “October surprise” as it occurred at September’s end, the fallout lingered until Election Day.
  • 2004. Four days before the election, Osama bin Laden unexpectedly shows up on Al Jazeera, taking credit for the 9/11 attacks, condemning the Bush Administration’s response, and otherwise sending pundits into a tizzy.
  • 2000. On the Thursday before the election, George W. Bush confirms that he was arrested for drunk driving, near his parents’ home in Maine, back in 1976. Karl Rove will later admit that the surprise revelation nearly ko’ed Bush – it took the candidate off message, turned off some evangelical votes, and probably cost Bush Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin (all states Al Gore won by less than 1%).

And even further back: There’s the re-indictment of Caspar Weinberger four days before the 1992 presidential election (a one-count charge of “false statement” that a federal judge dismissedsix week later), then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger asserting “peace is at hand” a week before the 1972 vote, and LBJ’s nationally televised speech on Halloween 1968 calling for a cease-bombing in North Vietnam. Surprises one and all.

As we’re a year from next October, rather than predict future curveballs let’s look instead at some “surprising” developments in the campaign season to date.

That would include, but’s not limited to:

BHO=BBO. Translation: Barack Obama’s weak approval ratings (in show-biz vernacular: “bbo”, or “bad box office”). Obama entered office with a 68% approval rating, per Gallup Daily’s three-day rolling average. A year later, he fell to 50%, followed by another dip to the low-40’s by the 2010 midterm election. But then his numbers rebounded. As recently as the Memorial Day weekend, Obama was at a politically safe 50%. But beginning in June, the bottom dropped out again – Obama’s approval rating falling below 40%. The surprise? Obama’s numbers haven’t inched north for more than four months now, despite a major military success (May’s successful raid on the bin Laden compound) and a Republican field that’s not exactly lighting the world on fire. George W. Bush had a 48% approval rating at the time of his re-election, suggesting Obama has his work cut out for him.

Mitt Falls Into a Pit. Historically, Republicans are a hierarchical outfit when it comes to choosing presidential nominees. The prize goes either to someone who sought it once before (McCain, Dole, Bush 41, Reagan, Nixon), or a candidate who corners the financial insiders’ market (Bush 43). In this election, history favors Mitt Romney. The surprise? Despite an edge in organization and an economic-heavy election seemingly tailored to his executive resume, Romney can’t break through; he’s consistently stuck below 30% in national polls. It’s not a fatal flaw: in 2008, McCain showed that’s its possible to win by virtue of a series of bruising pluralities. However, it also suggests an uninspired GOP base. And, like McCain in 2008 and Dole in 1996, that doesn’t bode well for Romney’s long-term prospects.

Deep in the Slump of Texas. There was a time – actually, the first week of September – when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was pushing 40% in national surveys of the GOP field and threatening to run away with the nomination. That time is long gone. Uninspired debate performances and a conservative backlash against his record on illegal immigration (offering in-state college tuition to the children of illegal aliens) have Perry on the defensive – and losing his frontrunner status. The surprise? It’s not just Perry’s swift decline, but that he’s the latest in a trend. Like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, there seems to be a quick expiration date for Tea Party darlings.

Who Ordered the Pizza? And that leads us to the latest meteoric rise: Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO. The surprise isn’t that Cain has catapulted into the upper echelon of the GOP field – his quick wit and upbeat nature (he’s a stage-IV colon-cancer survivor) are tailor-made for debates. The surprise? It would be that Cain’s “9-9-9” flat-tax plan has sparked a broader conversation about the nation’s tax code. Cain benefits from two voids: two-thirds of the GOP field is looking for someone other than Romney; as with Ronald Reagan in 1980, economic hardship, a strapped middle class and frustration with all things Washington make for a fertile climate to talk tax reform.

Rose Garden Wallflowers. In 1992, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and then-New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley opted against seeking the Democratic presidential nomination – Bill Clinton getting the nod, some would say by default. For both, it was a bad career move: Cuomo lost his Albany job in the 1994 Republican landslide; Bradley, by the time he challenged Al Gore in 2000, wasn’t the same force he was a decade earlier. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Chris Christie each pondered long and hard about a 2012 run. Each took a pass. The surprise? In a system that caters to a politician’s worst character flaws – susceptibility to flattery, exaggerated sense of worth – the two governors made decisions that appear to be adult (for Daniels: family concerns) and sensible (for Christie: finishing a first-term agenda).

Order in the House? The presidential contest doesn’t lack for intrigue. The same goes for the congressional races. Nationally, Republicans are excited about their chances for regaining the U.S. Senate (the GOP needs a pickup of 4 seats, which seems feasible given that 23 Democratic and Democratic friendly seats are on the line, versus only 10 Republican seats). The surprise? No one’s talking about the House, where the GOP currently has 242 seats. Not once in modern times has an incumbent president lost while his party regained the House. Nor have the two houses of Congress flipped in opposite directions (the Senate going GOP; the House going Democratic). In an anti-incumbent year, who’s to say the House is off-limits?

Say It Ain’t So, Joe? It hasn’t been the best of years for our intrepid Vice President. As always, there are the verbal gaffes (back in March, at a Democratic fundraiser in Philadelphia, he compared Republicans who want to control federal spending to people who blame rape victims for being raped). Biden’s overseas missions sometimes seem to have one mission in mind: avoid attention (surely you remember August’s diplomatic tour de force in Mongolia). Back in Washington, he’s the subject of rumors that he’ll be outsourced to Foggy Bottom, with Hillary Clinton replacing Biden as vice president – in theory, giving the ticket new life. Biden’s not the first vice president to suffer this kind of humiliation: Dick Cheney heard it in 2004, as did Dan Quayle in 1988. And, yes, Nelson Rockefeller was shown the door in 1976. The surprise? With Biden’s gaffes the stuff of legend, that it took this long to start for the whispers to commence.

“A Horse Is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course . . .” Every four years, America’s political media complain about their own approach to the campaign – too much focus on the horse race, not enough detail to serious issues-reporting. Flash forward from December 2008 to October 2011 and the current headlines: the latest poll numbers, who’s up and who’s down in the money game. Even Cain’s “9-9-9” plan falls victim to this shallowness: reporters would just as soon discuss his ties to the Koch Brothers as they would the impact of flat-tax rates. The surprise? Frankly, how unsurprisingly awful the media are in obsessing over straw polls, insider baseball and the “he said/she said” silliness of life on the campaign trail.