(Left) Romney and Obama
Denver, Oct. 3: The “October surprise” has eluded Denver, the venue of the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. That is what the Republican nominee needs to defeat Obama in his bid to capture the White House in less than five weeks.
Like a number of things that are rock solid by way of legacy in America, the idea of a surprise in October that can decisively influence the outcome of an impending presidential election can be traced back to Henry Kissinger, who was US national security adviser and later secretary of state in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Less than a fortnight before the presidential poll in 1972, Kissinger sprang a surprise and announced that his negotiations with the North Vietnamese on ending the war that had torn American society apart had produced results.
“We believe that peace is at hand,” Kissinger announced at a White House news conference, decisively ending George McGovern’s efforts to defeat Nixon and handing the incumbent a clear victory.
Four years ago, America’s financial meltdown which saw several Wall Street giants collapse like a pack of cards was an October surprise that doomed John McCain’s bid to succeed George W. Bush, whose policies became identified with the cause of that collapse.
There is broad agreement among pundits here that victory in 2008 was Obama’s to claim after that October surprise.
Very close to October this year, Democrats sprang a surprise from which Romney has been reeling even as he headed last night for the first face-to-face meeting with Obama in all of five years: a secretly recorded video in which the Republican candidate was disparaging about 47 per cent of Americans who did not pay income tax.
Republicans have been struggling to find their own October surprise that would damage Obama and rob him of the slender lead he has in opinion polls as of now. A few days ago they came up with a video clip of the President admitting that he believes in “redistribution” of wealth.
The idea of a government-led redistribution of wealth is worrying for most Americans as “socialism”, even for many of those who could benefit from such an exercise when the gap between the rich and the poor in the US is yawning like never before.
But the public soon discovered that this Republican attempt at an October surprise was actually a poorly-planned resurrection of an Obama speech made 14 years ago and Democrats reminded voters that Obama had done nothing in the last nearly four years in White House to merit any scare of wealth redistribution.
So the Republicans tried again yesterday, releasing through the unambiguously pro-Romney Fox News a video of a speech made by the President in which he implied that the federal government of that time did not care as much about victims of Hurricane Katrina as they did about victims of other similar natural disasters because those affected in New Orleans were mostly blacks.
In this video, Obama talks about the government not being colour-blind during the devastating 2005 hurricane and wondering if race played a role in the Bush administration’s slow response. So far, however, the video has failed to find traction as an October surprise because fact-checkers and Internet experts have been quick to point out that this speech has been available in public domain for several years since it was made in 2007.
Besides, defenders of the President, including independent observers have come out to defend Obama this morning by pointing out that he was not alone in suggesting the role played by race in New Orleans. Many white leaders in the US have said the same and called for changes in attitudes.
Every single poll taken of voters in the last one week shows Obama leading Romney, although some of those polls are within the margin of error. The average of all these polls taken together puts Obama ahead of Romney by 3.4 points.
Because the US presidential election is in reality not a national election, but several state elections, and given the structure of the electoral college that determines the victor, what is worrying Romney is the latest opinion polls from three “swing” states in this election: Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
Obama is leading by a solid eight points in Ohio. He is also leading in both Florida and Virginia albeit within a margin of error. If Romney loses even two of these three states, Obama would have won on November 6, according to poll analysts, which makes an October surprise critical for a Republican victory.
During the election in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the October surprise was a revelation that Bush, who had become a teetotaler by then, had been arrested for drunk driving way back in 1976 with the attendant suspicion that the charges had been hushed up by the influential Bush clan.
But the Republican campaign acted quickly to control the damage and Bush himself came forward to admit his arrest, invoking his children and an emotive plea that he hid it to avoid hurting his young twin daughters. It worked.
In 1992, an October surprise which added to the problems of George Herbert Walker Bush seeking a second term against newcomer Bill Clinton was the indictment of former Republican defence secretary Caspar Weinberger a few days before polling in the illegal sale of US arms to Iran known as the Iran-Contra affair.
On October 29, 2004, Osama bin Laden released a video in which he accepted responsibility for the first time for the terrorist attacks on September 11. Democrats were already perceived as weak on national security throughout that year’s campaign and the video helped to reinforce Bush’s image of being tough on terrorism.
For this year’s three presidential debates, Romney has already taken part in 23 mock debates with Republican Senator Rob Portman pretending to be Obama. The President, an acclaimed orator, on the other hand, has taken part only in five such mock debates.