Surprising change for October surprise

The “October surprise.” Both feared and hoped for by candidates at all levels, Wikipedia describes it as “a news event with the potential to influence the outcome of an election.” It made a pop culture appearance in the movie Wag the Dog, when a sitting president hired a Hollywood producer to stage a fake war that the president then heroically ends — just before Election Day. Yet the increasing popularity of early voting and vote-by-mail has dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the October surprise. By the time it hits, a large chunk of voters have already cast their ballots.

Traditionally, those nasty and negative stories near Election Day have had a far larger impact on voters than those nasty and negative stories a few months out. Once the initial shock passes, people have an enormous capacity to forgive (most) mistakes. It’s one of the reasons candidates tend to air their dirty laundry as early as possible.

On the campaign I worked in 2002, conventional wisdom had it that about half of unaffiliated voters hadn’t made up their minds even two weeks before Election Day. Not so much in 2008. Experts predict that nationwide “nearly a third of the electorate will vote early this year, up from 15% in 2000 and 20% in 2004. In closely contested Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, about half the voters are expected to cast ballots before Election Day. Florida could be 40%.” And don’t forget that Oregon, though safely in the Barack Obama column, has switched entirely to vote by mail.

I think those numbers could go even higher because of the emphasis both campaigns have placed on getting ballots in early. I’ve received at least three pieces of mail just from the AFL-CIO asking me to request an absentee ballot, and that doesn’t even count the plethora of text messages, e-mails and phone calls from the Obama campaign.

But even using the experts’ numbers, if half the voters in Colorado have already cast their ballot by Election Day, a late-breaking October surprise obviously won’t change those votes. In my highly unscientific experience, about a third of people fill out their ballots as soon as they get them, a third dawdle a bit, and a third wait until the very last minute. (I’m a last-minute guy myself.) That means an October surprise any later than, well, right about now will have a far smaller impact on this election than it would have had four years ago.

Does this mean the end of the October surprise? Hardly. Politicians and campaign managers adapt successful strategies to changing realities — and sometimes they just get lucky. The 2006 scandal involving Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida and his less-than-savory instant messages to Capitol Hill pages broke in late September, just in time for early mail voting. The scandal further contributed to the public’s loss of faith in Republican leadership, leading to a Democratic gain of 31 seats in the House and control of that chamber for the first time since 1994’s “Contract with America.”

As we approach Nov. 4, each passing day reduces the impact of an unexpected nasty and negative news story. Obama’s lead in the polls here in Colorado will almost certainly reflect a lead in early voting that John McCain would have to overcome on Election Day. While still possible, the “surprise” would have to create a truly enormous swing to overcome Obama’s advantage.

It looks to me, though, that the October surprises we know about would likely swing Obama’s way, not McCain’s — Keating Five or Troopergate, anyone? Then again, as a communications director it was the surprises I didn’t know about that kept me up at night.

Colorado Independent’s blogumnist (blogger-columnist) Jeff Bridges has worked in Democratic politics for the last 10 years, serving as communications director for two congressional races in Colorado and two governors races in the Deep South. Bridges also worked as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., with a focus on military and small-business issues.

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