John McCain and the October Surprise

The news just keeps getting worse for John McCain. For the first time this year, Barack Obama on Wednesday opened

The news just keeps getting worse for John McCain. For the first time this year, Barack Obama on Wednesday opened a double-digit lead over him in Gallup’s daily tracking poll – a 52 to 41 percent result that didn’t take into account Tuesday night’s debate, which (at least in snap polls conducted afterward) seemed to benefit Obama more. And Gallup is just one of numerous reputable polling outfits to find significant movement toward the Democratic nominee over the past two weeks.

This means it’s probably time to start thinking about an “October surprise” – some unforeseen or otherwise dramatic development that prompts millions of voters to rethink their assumptions and allegiances – because without one, the trajectory of the 2008 presidential race is now obvious.

The term “October surprise” is most famously associated with the 1980 campaign, when Republicans spent the fall worrying that Jimmy Carter would engineer a last-minute deal to free the American hostages who had been held in Iran since the previous year. Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a close race, but an awful economy and flagging national confidence made the president supremely vulnerable.

Reagan’s campaign was particularly worried because there had already been two instances in the ’80 campaign cycle when news out of Iran had caused Carter’s anemic popularity to (briefly) soar: When the hostages were seized in late 1979 and again when he authorized a bold but unsuccessful rescue mission a few months later. In those instances, the American public instinctively rallied around its president. This was no small factor in Carter’s ability to beat back Senator Ted Kennedy’s Democratic primary challenge. The release of the hostages, Reagan’s forces knew, would almost certainly guarantee Carter’s reelection.

But Election Day came and went and the hostages remained in Tehran. (Instead, they were freed moments after Reagan was sworn in the following January – a bit of timing that fueled years of unsubstantiated suspicion among Democrats that Reagan’s campaign had struck a deal with the Iranians to prevent an October surprise.)

That year is probably the closest we’ve come in the media age to a seismic event changing the outcome of a presidential race in its closing days, but there have been a few other late-in-the-game events worth noting.

The most recent came in 2004, when a video message from Osama bin Laden emerged on the Friday before the election. The Al Qaeda leader specifically addressed U.S. voters, saying, “Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands.” A few months after the election, Kerry essentially attributed his loss to the event, saying, “We were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday.”

But the impact of the ’04 bin Laden tape probably wasn’t so clear-cut. For one thing, its mere existence actually validated one of Kerry’s indictments of George W. Bush and his administration – that they had failed to capture the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. And to the extent that the tape did reinforce the fears that the Bush campaign was working hard to stoke among voters, Kerry assumes much of the blame. After all, he’s the one who decided to close his campaign with an emphasis on traditional Democratic themes like Social Security and education, while George W. Bush ran ads in Ohio featuring a young girl who said of her president: “He’s the most powerful man in the world and the only thing he cares about is making sure I’m safe.” If the bin Laden tape sunk Kerry – a questionable proposition to start with – it’s as much Kerry’s fault as anyone’s.

In 2000, the surprise came when word broke on the Friday before the election that Bush had been arrested 24 years earlier in Maine for driving under the influence. History doesn’t record this as the decisive moment in that campaign, especially since exit polls found that, outside of a few Democratic diehards, voters didn’t consider it a significant factor when they cast their ballots.

Then again, the election was extremely close, and Bush did enter the final weekend slightly ahead in most polls (and favored to win by most pundits). That Gore caught him at the wire (remember that Gore did win the popular vote) indicates that the race did move by a few points in the final few days. Even if they weren’t concerned about the DUI per se, it does seem possible that the news served to remind a small but significant number of voters of doubts they’d previously had (and mostly put to rest) about Bush’s maturity.

There’s also the case of 1976, another razor-thin election. In that year, the “surprise” was a poll the Friday before the election that showed Gerald Ford – for the first time in the entire campaign – actually inching ahead of Jimmy Carter. To this day, veterans of the Ford campaign believe this was actually the death knell for them.

For the preceding two months, Ford had played the scrappy underdog, steadily chipping away at Jimmy Carter’s lead (which was as high as 33 points) and raising questions about the Georgian’s readiness to lead the nation. But when Ford pulled ahead, voters were confronted with a possibility they hadn’t taken been taking too seriously – that Ford might actually win. That cast the questions that Carter was raising about Ford – chiefly, about his pardon of Richard Nixon – in a new light. Carter regained his footing over the final three days of the campaign and won by two points on Election Day.

The ’76, 2000 and (maybe) 2004 examples show how surprise developments can move polls by a few points in the closing days of a campaign. McCain can take some solace in this, but it seems like he’ll need more than that to catch Obama over the final few weeks.

What could save him? Maybe he’ll score a decisive victory in next week’s final debate, even though his performance in the first two (and in all of the G.O.P. primary debates) suggests otherwise. Or there’s the possibility of some kind of international crisis; Republicans enjoy a built-in advantage on national security issues (the same way Democrats have the edge when it comes to the economy, as McCain is now learning).

But whatever it is, it will have to be fairly massive. Because without a major surprise between now and Election Day, John McCain will lose.

John McCain and the October Surprise