Letter from America: A surprising ‘October surprise’
Rather than a pre-emptive strike on Iran, the curve ball before the US elections proved to be a natural disaster.
US soldiers help rescue New Jersey residents Photo: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
WASHINGTON – Anticipating the home stretch of the US presidential campaign,
pundits repeatedly bring up the threat of an “October surprise,” generally
referring to a crisis that breaks in the last few weeks of the campaign to throw
a wrench in the works.
In the 2012 race, those pundits often speculated
whether that October event would be an attack by Israel on Iran, a strike that
would elicit a counterattack by Iran and force a response from the United
States, possibly embroiling American troops in the region in further hostilities
– and dramatically affecting Americans’ view of the world and their
But Israel bowed out early on, with Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu announcing at the UN in September that Israel’s timeline for military
action on Iran wasn’t this fall, as had at one point been hinted at, but next
spring or early summer.
Republicans also tried to turn the Benghazi
terror attack, which killed four American diplomats including a US ambassador,
into a similar table-turning development. But the incident took place in
September, dissipating its impact, and didn’t compel enough attention from
voters to override the sorry state of the US economy as the issue utmost in
But what the Middle East failed to provide, Mother Nature
The October surprise ended up being a natural disaster
which battered the northeastern United States and devastated lower Manhattan,
including the site of the last catastrophe to strike at the heart of America’s
largest city – Ground Zero, home to the Twin Towers terror attack.
hurricane, which poured down on the East Coast and the edges of the Midwest from
Monday through Tuesday morning, disrupted campaigning near and far. Early voting
and canvassing in the affected states were suspended, viewership of election ads
dropped and both US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt
Romney cancelled events in key swing states.
So far the political
questions raised by such an incident – Was this caused by global warming? Has
the government adequately prepared for disasters? – have, ironically, been
But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a significant political
impact, as October surprises are supposed to have – even one that could
potentially be felt at the voting booth next Tuesday.
Romney had been on
a smooth roll after getting a boost from the first debate, which helped him in
polls across the country. Obama had been struggling to regain his lead, to slow
the tide turning toward Romney so that it didn’t overwhelm him on Election Day,
But this week, Romney couldn’t be seen as too critical of the
executive branch at a time of emergency or too garishly campaigning as millions
of Americans suffered.
Romney eventually settled for holding rallies to
raise donations for the victims of Sandy, but Obama was given a much more
advantageous set of political (if not environmental) circumstances: He got hours
of free TV showing him acting, well, presidential.
There was the White
House press conference where he offered reassurance and spoke of national unity,
there were the repeated briefings with agencies and local politicians coping
with the disaster, and there were the tours he took to inspect the damage
The storm has given Obama the opportunity to exercise the
full advantage of being the incumbent, of rising above the day-to-day political
tussle and just reminding voters that they know what they are getting, and what
they are getting is someone who can lead at a time of national
For Obama, it particularly plays to his strength.
does not excel in the traditional political arenas of shaking hands and kissing
babies, of the routine political pavement pounding that is usually undertaken to
earn votes. Instead, he does best when he is perceived as standing above the
fray, as being an inspiring figure as opposed to a salt-of-the-earth
The week’s developments might not be decisive, and it’s
always hard to assess exactly what makes the difference in the final analysis.
But as with that first debate, Hurricane Sandy changed the orientation of the
race – and this time with a lot less time remaining for a course
The concept of an October surprise lived up to its name.
Instead of the anticipated categories of disruptive incidents – particularly a
foreign intrusion – an unforeseeable event, officially categorized by insurance
companies as an “act of God,” brought its force to bear on the campaign. Now
it’s only a matter of waiting for Tuesday’s outcome.