Political Animal


October 01, 2012 3:46 PM Unsurprised

By Ed Kilgore

Playing off a very entertaining Kevin Drum post on the dismal history of “October Surprises” (dating all the way back to 1940!), Jonathan Bernstein offers a fine encapsulation of why such late-cycle shenanigans tend to have little effect on presidential election outcomes:

October Surprises are unlikely to matter to the outcome in November for exactly the same reasons that the debates are unlikely to matter, as John Sides explains it. Those include: most people have made up their minds by October; the people most likely to know about a news event are the ones most likely to have already decided; and partisans and other decided voters are apt to interpret the events through their own prior attitudes — that is, President Obama’s supporters are likely to heavily discount any new information they receive at this point, or simply just interpret it to fit in with their already-set belief that Obama is doing a decent job.

Jonathan goes on to acknowledge that external events (as opposed to debates or campaign speech and ads) can have an effect on elections by “changing the subject.” But even then, the effect is limited to voters who haven’t make up their minds and don’t process new information strictly through a partisan lens.

Earlier today I was talking to a BBC producer about a prospective appearance on Wednesday to discuss the first Obama/Romney debate. I allowed as how I was a skeptic about the game-changing potential of debates, and she responded that Brits were acutely aware of the 2010 impact of “Cleggmania” after LDP leader Nick Clegg’s impressive performance in a Leaders’ Debate prior to the last general election. I responded that UK elections lasted weeks, while ours lasted years. This may in fact be a rare advantage of our political system, insofar as Nick Clegg is now settling into a role as the least popular major national political figure in the United Kingdom.

In any event, I’d be surprised if the debates or any non-cataclysmic event had anything other than a marginal impact on the presidential elections. The contest may be close enough that “marginal impact” could ultimately be decisive, but in that case, many things that happened long ago could wind up mattering even more.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • bigtuna on October 01, 2012 3:59 PM:

    I kind of am interested in the results of the election, but I could give a sh== about the 'debates'. One reason Wed debates might be of less interest is .... it is the last day of the regular season of ML baseball, and I will be much more interested in NY Yankees, Baltimore Os, Oakland, Detroit Tigers, Chicago WS, etc., if those games matter for playoffs. :)

    Doesn't it come down to the spin, and the headlines the next day? It is mostly theater, isn't it? Doesn't it come down to whether the headlines read:

    "Romney and Obama spar over domestic issues" vs. "Romney babbles on while Obama summarizes the needs" or "Obama lectures the nation while Romney charms"

    or some such meme....

  • rk21 on October 01, 2012 4:06 PM:

    I don't even get the cataclysmic event bit. Suppose there is an earth shaking situation (no idea what-maybe Israel decides to act up). Does that mean everyone goes "OMG-what we need right now is Romney to solve this problem". What talent or skill does Romney bring to any situation? Everyone knows that the first option for republicans is either war, or go in with all guns blazing like a bunch of loons. A cataclysmic situation will probably remind everyone why republicans should be nowhere near the levers of power.

  • Ronald on October 01, 2012 4:18 PM:

    @rk21 makes a great point. No matter what sort of crisis, economic, military, domestic may arrive, Mr. Romney has already proven that he is not up to the task

    The whole 'October Surprise' thing is moot then by this point, since most people, as Ed pointed out, have already made up their mind.

    There is little that Mr. Romney can do to prevent his freefall right now.

  • T2 on October 01, 2012 4:26 PM:

    reading some quotes from pro-Romney spokespersons, it would seem that they think they have a plan to broadside Obama in the first debate - sending the whole mess back to square one. Barack Obama is not Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann. Romney's "Gotcha" strategy has Fail written all over it.. my only question is how much lying will the moderators allow Romney to get away with - in Candy Crowley's case the answer is likely " a whole lot", Schieffer may be as bad.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 01, 2012 4:27 PM:

    I do look forward to the debates... but really just for my own entertainment (geez, I hate to say it). But I admit that only because I just mailed my absentee ballot today.

    Does this mean I get to start celebrating the Obama victory early? Not unless alot of Dem-leaning folks stay home or are collectively disenfranchised, I honestly don't see Mitty winning this one--October Surprise or No... Mitt basically has the Palin-Handicap for the debates: if he doesn't stuff both feet in his mouth it will be considered a "surprise" indeed.

    Oh, btw, GOTV!!!!!! Obama 2012!!!! Whooooo!!!!!!

  • Jasperinboston on October 01, 2012 4:40 PM:

    *******I responded that UK elections lasted weeks, while ours lasted years. This may in fact be a rare advantage of our political system*******

    Advantage? Sounds nice in theory but doesn't bear up to examination. America's system is vastly more susceptible to the man-on-a-white-horse danger: a little known entity with a bit of charisma or a famous last name has a plausible shot at snookering both the press and the electorate. There isn't the lengthy apprenticeship in parliament required in the UK or similar parliamentary democracies. George W. Bush would never have become Prime Minister because there's no way such a bumbling fool would have been chosen by his peers in parliament to lead the party.

    The Westminster system does a MUCH better job at weeding out incompetents for the top job than the US system (although one saving grace of America's presidential politics is its ability to inject new blood into the leadership relatively quickly, eg, Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln).

    Anyway, this is a long-winded say of saying the United Kingdom doesn't NEED lengthy elections, because competitors for the top job in effect serve lengthy political apprenticeships -- mostly in the glare of public spotlight.

  • Ray on October 01, 2012 4:47 PM:

    The reason that Nick Clegg is now unpopular is not for any flaw that would have been exposed in a longer campaign. It's because he compromised on specific electoral promises when he agreed to form a coalition government with the Conservatives (and the fact that he is now propping up a government that is destroying the economy). What is perhaps more relevant is that the debate gave him a huge short-term boost in popularity that had largely evaporated by the time of the election.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 01, 2012 4:57 PM:

    This is something that I almost never mention, and which I don't actually much think about, but I have to admit that while I'm (like many here) a news and politics junkie, I am utterly and completely ignorant of all televised appearances such as speeches and debates. I could probably count on my hands the number of times I've actually seen Obama speak on television ... ever, since before his election. I absolutely, completely don't watch televised news, or speeches, or debates. It comes as a bit of a surprise on the very few occasions when I come across video of these political figures. Because I'm very familiar with them in every non-A/V sense. That is, the written word.

    Sometimes I feel like I ought to be watching a speech or a debate. But that feeling usually passes. And it's because I'm very wonky and 95% policy-focused, and only 5% personality-focused. My opinion on a politician or candidate is almost not at all influenced by how he/she "comes across" ... with the notable exception of how my opinion is influenced by others' opinions on this.

    All this is by way of preface to explaining that this is not just a matter of taste. It's a matter of me coming to believe many years ago that almost nothing of substance, or that I don't already know, is to be found in speeches and television appearances and debates.

    This is a shame, really. But I've reached a point where I discount all of this as wafer-thin, message-controlled PR that is essentially worthless. In this I wonder if I'm freakish. How much don't I comprehend US politics anymore since I've stopped watching politics/news on television?

  • RepublicanPointOfView on October 01, 2012 5:11 PM:

    It is only the democrats who arrange 'October Surprises' and they always fail.

    The only 'October Surprise' that would ever have been worth a damn is the one where Jimmy Carter had an agreement with the Iranians to release the hostages in late September / early October.

    Fortunately, Ronald Reagan and his operatives were able to counter that bit of nasty politics and assure that the hostages would not be released until Reagan took the oath of office.

  • Ron Byers on October 01, 2012 5:20 PM:

    Personally I am sick of the 2012 election. I would like some time off, but sadly watching the Hillary and Christy supporters jostling it is save to say 2016 is already starting. Frankly, America needs a little time off from all this political nonsense. We need to get something done.

  • SadOldVet on October 01, 2012 5:29 PM:

    @ Ron Byers...

    My nightmare scenario is a 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

  • Anonymous on October 01, 2012 5:31 PM:

    I love how the October "surprise" is to accuse Barack Obama of being Jimmy Carter, which is exactly what they've been doing every day for the last 4 years.


  • KarinJR on October 01, 2012 6:01 PM:

    Woah! This person tried to persuade you that Nick Clegg's good debate performances had a transformative effect on the 2010 UK elections? As it happens, I live in the UK and spent that election night helping out some friends who were Lib Dem parliamentary candidate. I can tell you for sure that Clegg's and his party massively UNDERperformed against expectations. They actual finished the election night with a few seats less than they'd had in the previous general election. However, because for the first time in over a century neither of the other two parties had an outright majority, they wound up in a position to form a government in coalition with the Conservaties.

    This is actually a classic example of how LITTLE effect debates can have, even a surprising and solid debate performance from a previously under appreciated figure like Clegg.

  • Jasperinboston on October 01, 2012 6:21 PM:

    *****The only 'October Surprise' that would ever have been worth a damn is the one where Jimmy Carter had an agreement with the Iranians to release the hostages in late September / early October. Fortunately, Ronald Reagan and his operatives were able to counter that bit of nasty politics*****

    So you're saying Reagan prolonged the suffering of Americans in captivity for political purposes? Nice.

  • C.H. on October 02, 2012 2:29 AM:

    Romney has some shady operators on his side: Rove, Cheney, Netanyahu (who seemed a couple of weeks ago to be trying to help Romney), and lots of $$$$ thanks to the Kochs, Adelson, Cooperman, etc. I just hope that it is a rhetorical "bombshell" October Surprise that the Rove-connected, Super-Pac connected, insider source-connected, operatives were chortling about and predicting would lead to a Romney landslide victory.

    I put nothing beyond the level of criminality to which some of these sociopathic warmongering characters would stoop in their endless pursuits for more money and more power.


  • Hieronymous Braintree on October 02, 2012 4:15 AM:

    I find it amazing that people are being so dismissive of the idea that debates are likely to have a major impact. That strikes me as ahistorical bupkis.


    1) The Nixon/Kennedy debate is recognized to have been a big plus for Kennedy because he looked healthier than Nixon. That's stupid, but that's politics.

    2) The next presidential debate was Carter/Ford. Ford famously and wrongly declared that there was no Sovite domination of Eastern Europe, which made him look like an out-of-touch twit. Guess who won?

    3) The next one was Carter/Reagan. There you go again. It's nice having a copy of your oponent's debating points smuggled to you when prepping your candidate, eh George Will?

    4) In the first Mondale/Regan debate Reagan looked and sounded like a befuddled old man whereupon Mondale kicked his ass. Regan rallied for the second. I call it a draw.

    5) Dukakis/Bush was famous for Dukakis's weirdly cold-blooded answer to Bernie Shaw's question about giving the death penalty to someone who had just murdered Dukakis's wife.

    6) I missed all of Clinton's debates.

    7) Gore/Bush seemed to have turned out in Gore's favor and he did win the popular vote and probably the electoral college to boot. The idea that audiences were put off by his sighing is a myth.

    I've gotta go but remember that Romney is gaffe prone and Obama generally is not.

  • John B. on October 02, 2012 10:23 AM:

    *****Fortunately, Ronald Reagan and his operatives were able to counter that bit of nasty politics*****

    RepublicanPointofView is exactly right,for once. It is well known that Ed Meese went to Paris and negotiated a secret agreement with the Iranian terrorists to keep the American hostages imprisoned until Reagan was inaugurated as president. "Arms for hostages" it was called. To be sure, many thought this was a serious violation of the law that forbids private diplomacy, but in the Republican theocracy all's fair to win an election, even the sacrifice of American freedom and lives.