Autumn surprise can transform a presidential race
WASHINGTON (AP) — Septembers shock, Octobers surprise, early Novembers can knock a campaign sideways. In a presidential race's waning weeks, almost anything can happen — bedlam in the Middle East, financial panic at home, a scandal in the headlines. And candidates have little time to absorb the blow.
Sometimes the kind of jolt known as an "October surprise" matters in the end. Other times it doesn't. But every campaign knows enough to worry about what might come.
"A fall general election is a very wild ride," said Steve Schmidt, who managed Sen. John McCain's campaign and served on George W. Bush's re-election team. "It's a volatile ride. You're always on guard."
Often the unforeseen sweeps in from overseas. Anti-American protests spreading through Muslim countries this week and the armed attacks that killed the ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, grabbed a presidential race focused on the domestic economy and spun it around to foreign policy.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney seized on the unrest in Libya, Egypt and then Yemen to criticize President Barack Obama as a weak world leader willing to appease Islamic extremists. Obama portrayed Romney as untested in foreign policy and rushing to politicize a tragedy before fully understanding the facts.
How much of that is remembered by voters on Nov. 6 will depend on what happens in the meantime. Does the anti-American violence in Muslim nations flare or fade? Other surprises, such as skyrocketing gasoline prices or escalating trouble between Israel and Iran, might emerge and be fresher on voters' minds.
"Every day matters. Every moment changes the needle," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, a veteran of the Bill Clinton and Al Gore presidential campaigns. But she says it's unlikely a late surprise will reset the race because "the basic threads of this election are already implanted in the minds of voters."
The classic definition of an October surprise — a term popularized by Ronald Reagan in 1980 — is timely news orchestrated by a president to help his own re-election. Now it's more broadly applied to any unexpected development with potential to sway the race toward one candidate or the other.
In 2008, Obama's campaign benefited from the autumn economic shock that, in its aftermath, now threatens his re-election.
"Four years ago at this exact hour, John McCain had a lead coming out of a very successful convention. Nobody had any idea a series of events was going to unfold that brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse," Schmidt said Thursday. "It effectively ended the campaign."
On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers investment bank filed for the nation's largest bankruptcy ever, setting off a stock market crash and global financial panic that voters largely blamed on the Republicans in power. McCain didn't help his cause by declaring that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" — a statement mocked by the Obama campaign. That's not to say Obama wouldn't have won, anyway, but it would have been a different race.