Commentary Magazine


Topic: October surprise

Is Sandy This Year’s October Surprise?

It is a standby of political journalism every four years to ponder what event will qualify as the “October surprise” of the election cycle. The assumption is that the incumbent administration will attempt to manipulate some incident in order to either discredit the opposition or to flaunt their leadership skills. Despite the fact that most presidential elections come and go without anything like that happening, it isn’t just paranoids who wait and watch for something that will change the fate of the candidates. So far in 2012 the only unexpected event that has occurred in October was the first presidential debate that showcased Mitt Romney’s strengths and Barack Obama’s weaknesses. But this week something may happen that could potentially play the role of the last-minute game changer: Hurricane Sandy.

With the East Coast battening down the hatches for a potential disaster, politics is the furthest thing from the minds of those in the storm’s path. But you can bet that both campaigns are pondering more than just changing their schedules to stay out of those areas affected by the hurricane. While the odds of this turning into the kind of political disaster for the president that Hurricane Katrina became for President Bush are fairly slim, some paranoid Republicans may worry that if President Obama is seen as doing an effective job leading rescue or recovery effort in the next week, it could give him a jolt of momentum that could make the difference in a close race. That is possible, but I think the idea that a natural disaster is going to impact the views of a critical mass of voters in such a way as to influence them to support Obama is pretty far-fetched. Though it is to be hoped that federal agencies acquit themselves admirably in the coming days and that no discredit is brought down upon the government or the White House, there is a reason why such events are called disasters. If history teaches us anything, storms provide politicians with more chances to screw up than to look good.

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It is a standby of political journalism every four years to ponder what event will qualify as the “October surprise” of the election cycle. The assumption is that the incumbent administration will attempt to manipulate some incident in order to either discredit the opposition or to flaunt their leadership skills. Despite the fact that most presidential elections come and go without anything like that happening, it isn’t just paranoids who wait and watch for something that will change the fate of the candidates. So far in 2012 the only unexpected event that has occurred in October was the first presidential debate that showcased Mitt Romney’s strengths and Barack Obama’s weaknesses. But this week something may happen that could potentially play the role of the last-minute game changer: Hurricane Sandy.

With the East Coast battening down the hatches for a potential disaster, politics is the furthest thing from the minds of those in the storm’s path. But you can bet that both campaigns are pondering more than just changing their schedules to stay out of those areas affected by the hurricane. While the odds of this turning into the kind of political disaster for the president that Hurricane Katrina became for President Bush are fairly slim, some paranoid Republicans may worry that if President Obama is seen as doing an effective job leading rescue or recovery effort in the next week, it could give him a jolt of momentum that could make the difference in a close race. That is possible, but I think the idea that a natural disaster is going to impact the views of a critical mass of voters in such a way as to influence them to support Obama is pretty far-fetched. Though it is to be hoped that federal agencies acquit themselves admirably in the coming days and that no discredit is brought down upon the government or the White House, there is a reason why such events are called disasters. If history teaches us anything, storms provide politicians with more chances to screw up than to look good.

The circumstances that turned bad weather into the turning point for George W. Bush’s presidency were unique and probably can’t be replicated. Even if poor black coastal communities were to suffer disproportionately this week, no one will say it is the result of President Obama’s racism or blame him for the failures of local and state authorities. But when faced with distress of the kind that we are told to expect, it takes more than a sympathetic look from a president who helicopters in to look at the damage to convince people that things are okay. The potential for some failure or screw-up to make the government look bad is far greater than any opportunity for Obama to play the hero.

It should be admitted that it might be better for the president for him to spend a couple of days acting like a president rather than to be chasing around swing states engaging in name-calling against his foe or using expletives to describe him. But a mere photo op or the awarding of disaster aid to a region or city won’t win many hearts or minds in an election in which there are few truly undecided voters. The only political impact of the storm will probably be in how it influences turnout in coastal states, especially Virginia. But that’s unlikely to hurt one party more than the other.

The fact is the obsession with October surprises is based on the fallacy that the electorate is more fickle than it actually is. In a year when the economy is the main issue, a potentially damning incident like the fiasco in Libya last month has had little impact on the Obama-Romney race. Whatever they may think of what happened, Democrats are not likely to abandon their leader because of it since they prioritize domestic issues. Republicans who are outraged about the administration’s dishonesty and who rightly demand answers about what happened would not have supported Obama even if this had never happened.

If Sandy is this year’s October surprise, that’s just another way of saying that there isn’t one.

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Jobs and the Election

There’s something for everyone in this morning’s jobs report.

Democrats will point to the reported 163,000 new jobs last month, double June’s dismal 80,000 (which was revised downward today to an even more dismal 64,000).  For the first time in quite awhile this was above economists’ estimates (they were predicting 95,000 new nonfarm jobs).

Republicans will point to the fact that the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.3 percent from 8.2. That’s the worst since February. The unemployment rate has been above 8 percent for 41 straight months now. The broader measure of unemployment, which includes part timers who would rather be working full time, also increased from 14.9 percent to 15 percent, a really bad number.

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There’s something for everyone in this morning’s jobs report.

Democrats will point to the reported 163,000 new jobs last month, double June’s dismal 80,000 (which was revised downward today to an even more dismal 64,000).  For the first time in quite awhile this was above economists’ estimates (they were predicting 95,000 new nonfarm jobs).

Republicans will point to the fact that the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.3 percent from 8.2. That’s the worst since February. The unemployment rate has been above 8 percent for 41 straight months now. The broader measure of unemployment, which includes part timers who would rather be working full time, also increased from 14.9 percent to 15 percent, a really bad number.

It should be pointed out that these numbers are not raw, they are adjusted to be, hopefully, consistent over time. But that, of course, adds a human element to the numbers, for these adjustments are the product of judgments, guesses, estimates, and, perhaps, unconscious prejudice. There are some who have serious questions regarding the adjustments made to this month’s figures.

Even if the economy now continues to create jobs at the rate of 163,000 a month, that’s not nearly enough to bring down the unemployment rate.  Indeed, if things start to pick up, discouraged workers not now counted might begin to search for jobs again and send the unemployment rate up, not down.  It is already half a percentage point above the highest figure any president since Roosevelt has survived to be re-elected.

There will be three more jobs reports before the election (on September 7, October 5, and November 2). That last one will be on the Friday before the election day.  If it’s a really bad one or a really good one, it could make the difference provided the election is still close. The Friday before election day is considered the best day to drop a bombshell, as the opposition has little time to effectively respond. It was on that day in 2000 that the Al Gore campaign released information, which it had known for months, on George W. Bush’s long-ago DUI incident.

And it was on the Friday before the 1992 election that—in one of the most disgraceful acts in the history of American justice—Lawrence Walsh, special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra scandal, re-indicted  former defense secretary Casper Weinberger and directly implicated President Bush in the indictment although that was totally irrelevant to the indictment itself. The indictment was later dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds (and Bush gave Weinberger a full pardon to prevent any further shenanigans from Walsh). Even Lanny Davis, later special counsel to President Clinton called the action, “bizarre.”

The first President Bush was already toast at that point. But the DUI report in 2000 might well have turned what would have been a close but clear election into the hanging-chads constitutional nightmare that the 2000 election became.

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