Today’s topic seems to be October Surprises, with Mitt Romney’s campaign supposedly all excited that alleged malfeasance by the Obama administration in Libya will boost Romney’s chances. Kevin Drum has an excellent item on the history of them going back to 1944. He concludes that these events are unlikely to be effective because voters are so cynical and simply dismiss them as campaign tactics.
I’d expand on that, however, and argue that 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.
Events, however, do have at least in one sense a capacity to change things that debates really don’t have: They can change the subject. Debates are probably particularly bad at that because they’re most likely to get us thinking about the candidates themselves, and we’re especially likely to interpret the candidates’ actions through our preconceived ideas. However, sometimes we have mixed views of an incumbent president. The classic example was in 1992, when most Americans approved of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy and national security record but thought he had done a lousy job on the economy. Therefore, if foreign affairs were in the news, Bush’s overall approval ratings would go up, but when the economy was in the news his overall approval would drop. People would judge Bush on whatever topic the general news environment primed them to do so.
This suggests to me that Romney’s hopes for Libya are misplaced. While Obama has rallied on questions about the economy, surely that’s still an inherently more difficult topic for him to be judged on than foreign affairs, and particularly terrorism. Conservative pundits might consider Obama a failure in these areas, but for most Americans the death of Osama bin Laden is surely the overwhelming fact of the Obama administration and terrorism. At any rate, Obama usually gets higher marks in the polls for foreign affairs than for the economy. If that’s true, then it’s possible that shifting the topic to Libya could help Obama even if people were to agree with Romney’s critique on that issue, because they’re more likely to support Obama in general if they’re thinking about foreign policy and national security.