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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

October Surprises

In this election season, much has been said of an "October surprise" that could turn the presidential campaigns on their ears. The original October surprise came during the 1980 election and concerned the possible release of the American hostages then being held in Iran. As it happened, they weren't released until January 1981 (literally minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in).

Since then, pundits have speculated on possible October surprises in the weeks before each presidential election. Do the campaigns have anything up their sleeve? What external variables could throw the election into turmoil? As short-term futurism, speculating on October surprises is both an interesting parlor game and a way to stay abreast of an especially close race.

This year, there are plenty of possible October surprises... all of which are possible if not highly likely. Most aren't very pleasant. Any of these could give either George W. Bush or John Kerry an advantage. Among the most interesting are:

Another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Though no one wants to see this happen, a terrorist attack could cut both ways. People could rally around the President as they did after 9/11, which would definitely benefit Bush. But if people conclude that the Bush Administration or DHS dropped the ball, they might question Bush's antiterror strategy. The worst-case scenario for Bush would be an attack that was totally out of the blue, that no one has yet anticipated.

The capture of Osama bin Laden. Along with another U.S. terror attack, it's been the most discussed October surprise. Conspiracy theorists, in fact, have speculated that the Bush administration knows precisely where OBL is, and will "capture" him just days prior to the election. No doubt, Bush would be the beneficiary here. But if an all-out effort to capture bin Laden failed -- or if it became clear that his capture was staged by the Bush team for political gain -- it could well backfire.

Raising the terror threat level. Much has been said of a possible terror attack scheduled on or around Nov. 2, so it's not inconceivable that DHS would raise the national terror threat level to orange (high) or even red (severe). However, DHS would have to prove an airtight case for doing so, lest the move be seen as a cynical attempt to divert attention from other news (especially if Bush is behind in the polls). Such a move could end up benefitting Kerry if not handled with great care.

A major insurgent offensive in Iraq. Right now the U.S.-led coalition has had success suppressing insurgents, but if the insurgents mount a major counteroffensive, it would push the Iraq controversy into the forefront, and call Bush's leadership into question. One of the more fanciful scenarios: Old regime loyalists stage a raid to spring Saddam from prison.

A sharp change in the price of oil. Right now, oil prices are at an historically high $50 per barrel. If prices spike upward further, it would ignite economic worries that would play into Kerry's hands. But prices could also drop dramatically, benefitting Bush slightly.

Revelations of scandal. If word of a scandal spread concerning one of the candidates, it would probably not hurt that candidate unless there was solid evidence backing it up. Otherwise, the electorate might size it up as a smear campaign and ignore it. But scandals can still hurt; recall in the last days of the 2000 campaign a revelation that George W. Bush had been pulled over for DUI, and that that story might have cost him some critical votes.

Revelation of plans to reinstate the military draft. Everyone in Washington denies that this is even being considered, but others aren't so sure. If word leaked that either a second Bush administration or a new Kerry administration had concrete plans for reinstating the draft, it would be devastating to that candidate.

A dramatic change in the stock market. Always a variable... but it is, after all, October. Even for those who don't invest, the Dow serves as an economic barometer. Clearly, a sudden bull market could help Bush, and a sharp dive would help Kerry.

Another terrorist attack in Russia. The tragic hostage situation in Russia several weeks ago pushed terrorism to the forefront once again, as many Americans speculated on whether it could happen here. Bush may have benefitted as a result. Another high-profile terror attack in Russia could similarly benefit Bush from renewed concern about domestic terror.

Chaos in India. A recent upsurge in regional violence in India could escalate into greater instability. If Pakistan were to be pulled into the fray, tensions between the two countries could once again ignite. This is bad news all-around, as India has become a major U.S. business partner, and Pakistan has become a key military ally. Exactly who would benefit from this is unclear, though Kerry might use it to promote his internationalist approach to foreign relations. Especially if the United Nations rides to the rescue, it could clearly help Kerry and damage Bush.

The outcome of the Afghan elections. Scheduled for next Sunday (Oct. 9), a relatively smooth election would benefit Bush, validating his strategy there. But even if things went badly, it's unclear that Kerry would benefit... unless things went horribly wrong.

The unexpected death of a prominent world figure. Think Princess Diana in 1997, or Ronald Reagan this past summer. Suddenly, the election would be knocked off the front page. Depending on who the figure is and the circumstances of his/her death, it could benefit either candidate. Most likely, though, it would help Bush at least slightly, as he could "act Presidential" during a trying time in a way that Kerry cannot.

A gaffe. At this point, very little the candidates say will have an effect on the election outcome, unless it turns out to be stunningly ignorant or stupid.

These are just the obvious speculations. I may add more as time passes.