October Surprise: Is It Sandy?

/ Source: Discovery Channel

Hurricane Sandy barreled into the East Coast with just a week left before the Presidential election –- disrupting campaign plans, national polls, and the media's intense focus on politics.

Because no one can predict exactly when or where hurricanes will strike, Sandy seems like the perfect candidate for this year's "October Surprise" -- the kind of voter-swaying event that often seems to happen right before major elections.

But unlike previous October Surprises, such as the Cuban missile crisis or news of George W. Bush's drunk-driving arrest, Sandy is the first natural disaster to hit domestically in the days leading up to a tight presidential race.

With no real precedent and the disaster still ongoing, it's not yet clear how Sandy will influence votes next week. For now, it could go either way, with the biggest impact likely to be on the very small number of people who are still unsure about how they're going to vote.

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"If you're having trouble deciding in this election and something about this event crystallizes your way of thinking one way or the other, it can play into the negative narrative of the opposition or the positive narrative of the incumbent," said David Stebenne, a modern American political historian at Ohio State University in Columbus. "If you get a push one or another right at the end and it's a really close race, it can be decisive."

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The phrase "October Surprise" first became popular in 1980, as the Iran hostage crisis intensified in the weeks leading up to the election between Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

Rumors were swirling that Carter might stage a military operation to free the hostages, and the Republicans worried that a successful rescue would overcome close margins and secure the win for Carter. Instead, Carter did nothing. The hostages remained in Iran, and Carter lost the race.

Conspiracy theories emerged when the hostages were released just minutes after Reagan's inauguration a few months later, sparking suspicions that his team had sabotaged Carter's efforts to swing the election in his favor.

Nevertheless, the outcome illustrates how an October news crisis can damage the chances of a politician running for re-election.

"It just reinforced the larger picture in the minds of swing voters that Carter was a nice man who was not up to doing the job," Stebenne said. "Fast forward to today. If you're a swing voter and you think President Obama is a nice person but not sure he's up to the job, if he bungles the response to Sandy, it connects with a larger critique leveled by his opponents of his presidency in general. That's the kind of October surprise that can hurt you."

In a similar example, news came out just days before the 2000 election revealing that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in 1976. As a result, polls suggested that Bush lost about 1 percent of the popular vote. And even though he still defeated Al Gore, Bush received a minority of the popular vote that year in an extraordinarily close call.

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In other cases, unexpected pre-election events have managed to help the current presidential office-holder, and examples predate the initial coining of the term "October Surprise."

At the end of October in 1956, for example, Britain, France and Israel suddenly invaded Egypt in a battle over control of the Suez Canal. The crisis served as a test for incumbent Dwight Eisenhower, who earned the American public's trust by helping to convince the invaders to withdraw from Egypt.

"This reminds voters as they move to the polls in November of '56 why they voted for Eisenhower in the first place," Stebenne said. "He is a former military person but he tries to promote peace. He won in a landslide, and the October Surprise helped him win by an even bigger margin."

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 similarly helped the Democrats. Even though it was not a presidential election year, John F. Kennedy's successful negotiation of the end of the 13-day crisis on October 28 gave the entire party a big boost in congressional races.

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As a natural disaster that has nothing to do with foreign policy and did not arise because of human actions, Hurricane Sandy is a new kind of October Surprise, said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

With so little time between the storm and Election Day, Sandy is likely to be on voters' minds as they go to the polls. And with much of the Northeast still in crisis, both candidates need to be careful about how they present themselves between now and next Tuesday so they don't appear to be using the storm as a political tool.

"In a lot of ways, the campaigns of 2012 ended three days ago," Zelizer said. "A lot of people expect both [candidates] to pull back a little. They have to readjust their methods and tactics. It's going to be a challenge in the days ahead. They just won't get the media time they were expecting and counting on just prior to the election."

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Stakes are particularly high right now because, according to most of the latest polls, Obama and Romney are neck and neck.

"If the election weren't so close to begin with, the likelihood that [Sandy] would make a difference is low," Stebenne said. But "if you were trying to design a laboratory scenario testing the effects of the October Surprise, I don't think you could do much better."