Usually an October surprise is the work of an incumbent president. The concept originated in the 1972 presidential election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Just twelve days before the election, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger announced “peace was at hand.”
Four years earlier, Nixon had announced a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. It never materialized in the four years of negotiations with the North Vietnamese, at least not until days before the November vote.
Since then, the threat of an October surprise has been suggested for every presidential election. Ronald Reagan feared that Jimmy Carter would pull that in the 1980 presidential election with the Iranian hostage crisis. Similar fears by conservatives are arising about Barack Obama.
The October surprise does not have to be from an incumbent, though. In 1992, Reagan’s defense secretary Caspar Weinberger was indicted for the Iran-Contra scandal. It hurt George H.W. Bush’s chances for reelection. In 2000, information that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in Maine during 1976 came out just days before the vote. That may have turned a close election even closer.
Even prior to Nixon, presidents sought favorable events prior to their reelection. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln feared that he would lose the election to peace candidate George McClellan. Lincoln sought to emphasize military triumphs that would ensure his reelection. Fortunately, he found many of them.
The fears that Obama might pull an October surprise range from the ludicrous – that Obama will interfere with free and fair elections — to the unlikely – the legalization of pot. No president could get away with the outright fraud needed to win an election. Moreover, no president, especially one as politically astute as Obama, is going to legalize pot when it is not legal in a single state.
It is plausible that Obama could declare his support for making medical marijuana legal nationally. However, that would only point out the hypocrisy of Obama’s position from 2008 when he said he would leave medical marijuana dispensaries alone, but has since sent Attorney General Eric Holder on them like a pit bull.
It is also plausible that Obama could attack Iran’s nuclear research facilities. This would be such an enormous roll of the dice that it is doubtful. Oil prices may quadruple, throwing the world into a depression. While that could happen after the election, a sudden spike in oil prices would occur before the election as speculators pump prices skyward. It would be the biggest gamble in political history. That is a bet that Obama is not likely to make.
Nevertheless, Obama may still feel the effects of this October surprise thanks to an unlikely source — the Israelis. It is widely known that they may be considering an attack prior to the U.S. elections. Politically, Obama would not be able to oppose the Israeli attack. Most likely, Obama would have to express some support for the Israeli action in order to avoid losing the influential Jewish vote.
While Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama have a prickly relationship, an Israeli attack will be a political boon for Obama whether the attack goes badly or well. In a foreign policy crisis not of a president’s own making, the public rallies around the president. An irate Iran will immediately attack ships in the Persian Gulf, which is heavily patrolled by U.S. warships. Far from trying to bomb deep and fortified bunkers harboring nuclear research in Iran, the Iranian navy is target practice for the U.S. Navy. The Iranians may get lucky and hit a few tankers or shut down the shipping lanes, but no one is going to blame Obama for this. An international emergency will require decisive action. Obama’s reelection would be the beneficiary.
What could Mitt Romney do? He cannot campaign while criticizing Obama. That would look disloyal. He will be stricken from the news stories, a presidential candidate that is an afterthought to the news, instead of one of the two driving forces behind it in the days before an election.
Romney’s irrelevance will only be exceeded by an October surprise that is definitely going to happen — the release of his tax returns. While that is technically not a surprise, no one knows what will be seen in the Romney returns or how voters will react to the reemergence of the tax return issue.
The Romney campaign has vowed to release the second year of Romney’s tax returns by October 15. He did not release them in April because Romney needed to get a six-month extension to put tax information in order. With a net worth of $250 million, tax information must come many places. Some of that is from international sources that do not care about April 15 deadlines.
If Iran is attacked, Romney’s taxes are a mere footnote in the campaign. If the Iran attack does not occur, then the tax return issue will reappear just weeks before the election.
This is a major political blunder by the Romney camp. The tax returns will reemphasize Romney’s considerable wealth at a time when the rest of the country is struggling. That is not a political positive. It also will generate new calls for Romney to release more tax returns. An issue that should be dead will be reinvigorated. It is a no-win situation for Romney.
The election will still be close come October. Nevertheless, the twin surprises of an Israeli attack on Iran and Romney’s release of his tax return for 2011 threaten to derail whatever chance Romney has of winning the presidency.
UPDATE: An earlier version of the story had a paragraph about the Israeli elections, which I mistakenly thought were October 22, 2012, but are really in 2013. The elections being next year don’t change the political ramifications of an Israeli attack on Iran, but it does remove a complication that I erroneously included.