Republicans fear President Obama will indiscriminately bomb Libya and kill innocent people in order to rally support for his re-election. G.O.P. candidates have faced October surprises in the past and do not trust a Chicago machine politician. An October surprise is an event designed to influence the election at the last minute. Over the last 50 years, there have been five such events. Interestingly, only one succeeded whereas the other four had no impact or did not defeat its target.
The first modern October surprise occurred in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson hoped to sway the election for the Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. As a result, he halted American bombing runs over North Vietnam and announced intensified peace talks. After the October 30 declaration, Humphrey sprinted to a three point lead in the polls after the announcement, but Nixon won the election.
The North Vietnamese did not negotiate in good faith until Nixon’s re-election seemed assured. In 1972, Henry Kissinger announced “peace is at hand.” The October 26 announcement infuriated Nixon, who wanted the information kept secret until he could be sure North Vietnam was serious. The announcement probably had little impact on the election. Nixon topped 60% of the vote and easily defeated George McGovern.
Bill Clinton did not serve in the Vietnam War. This fact hurt his 1992 campaign for the presidency. Polls remained tight going into the final weekend when the Iran Contra Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh broke with tradition and indicted several Reagan era officials. Walsh despised President Bush and clearly wanted to influence the election otherwise he would have waited a week. Whether or not the indictments cost Bush re-election is an open question. However, the polls were tied prior to the announcement.
Eight years later, Bush’s son, George W Bush, looked like he was about to cruise to victory over Vice President Al Gore. A few days before the election, the Democrats released information about a 1976 drunken driving arrest. Bush confirmed the incident shortly thereafter. The announcement cost Governor Bush about five points in the polls and led to the Florida election controversy.
Despite the DUI arrest, Bush won the 2000 election. Four years later, the Democrats tried again. On October 27, the Kerry campaign accused Bush of mismanaging the Iraq War after the pro-Kerry New York Times announced missing weapons caches in Iraq. However, the paper got the story wrong and the damage dissipated. It was the second time in the election the media invented a story about Bush. The president won re-election.
Presidential electoral history should have both sides concerned about the October Surprise. On five occasions, late breaking news appeared to influence public opinion. Republicans fear Obama will bomb Libya. Democrats worry that Republicans will reveal the president’s former drug dealer. Even if there is no surprise in 2012, unexpected revelations will probably continue to pop up in close elections.