Historians Discuss How Outside Events Affect the Fall Election
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GWEN IFILL: How have events beyond the control of the candidates affected presidential campaigns of the past? For that I’m joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; and Meena Bose, a professor of American politics at West Point.
They call them October surprises, Meena. Is that what we can expect or is that what we’ve seen in the past?
MEENA BOSE: Well, we’ve certainly seen different types of October surprises. Ones that come to mind, there were fears in 1980, when American hostages were being held in Iran, there were questions about whether, if the hostages were released right before the election, whether that would affect the results of the race.
Ultimately, of course, the hostages were released on Inauguration Day, after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.
GWEN IFILL: But did the prospect of the possibility of a release affect the outcome? Does anybody know now?
MEENA BOSE: Well, I think you could say that, if it had happened, it would have; but certainly the prospect raised a number of questions on both sides of the campaign, both Carter and Reagan campaigns, trying to figure out how they would respond if that happened.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, can you think of other examples where the October surprise– if it’s not a myth; I’m not going to assume that that actually is a trend– has affected a campaign from the outside?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Actually, if you look at 1964, not that it was a very close contest, but for one moment the Goldwater people allowed themselves to believe that their issue of moral decay might actually take hold.
One night in October, Walter Jenkins, who was a very close aide to President Johnson, was arrested in a YMCA in Washington under compromising circumstances, and for a few hours the Goldwater people thought this might be what they needed.
Well, two things then happened, totally unpredictable. One was China– then Red China– successfully tested their first nuclear device; and in Moscow the politburo overthrew Nikita Khrushchev. All of a sudden, the world stage was back center stage. People forgot Walter Jenkins.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, is it always the world stage?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It is. I think you forgot two things also, or didn’t forget, but also the World Series and also there was a change of government in London. So it was almost like the planets aligned to help Lyndon Johnson. But these things do happen, and I think you have to have really two things be the case: Number one, it has to be a close election coming in to those last weeks in October; and it also has to be an event that’s really at the center of the campaign.
For instance, 1968, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon were neck and neck late in October. October 31, five days before Election Day, Lyndon Johnson announced a halt of bombing of North Vietnam. A lot of people angry at Johnson and Humphrey about the war said, “well, maybe peace is coming.” And so for a couple of days, Humphrey zoomed in the polls, and then the South Vietnamese government said they would not negotiate, and Humphrey plunged.
So a result was that, you know, after the two days, if the election had been held then, Humphrey probably would have won, according to the polls; but it was held two days later; in the end he lost.
GWEN IFILL: When these unpredictable things happen, Michael, are they usually… do they usually benefit the incumbent or the challenger?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No way of saying because it really is sort of the way that the issue flips, and obviously, you know, the one thing that we hate to mention, but if there was some horrible terrorist event this fall, you can imagine the debate in advance– you know, would that help President Bush or would it help John Kerry?
GWEN IFILL: How about that? What do you think about that? Do incumbents sit around and hope for… well, I guess if they’re behind, they sit around and hope for something.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: In the classic case of 1864, when Abraham Lincoln… I mean, in a time of war, events are even more beyond control of a president. They really rest with the armies in the field, and Lincoln had two lucky breaks, though. He thought in august of that year he was going to lose the election. Then he had two lucky breaks. One was the Chicago convention. The Democratic Convention met.
They adopted a peace platform, calling for a negotiated end to the war and repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation. That shocked millions of voters. And then, two days after that convention, General Sherman took Atlanta, and all of a sudden, from the depths of gloom Lincoln and his supporters were seen to be winning the war, and his victory became almost a forgone conclusion.
GWEN IFILL: Now, the interesting thing about Lincoln is it was a domestic war, not a foreign war. So it was a slightly different take on the whole idea about whether foreign policy is what usually switches things.
Are there cases where unemployment numbers or other domestic concerns might have switched and affected the outcome or at least the direction of a campaign?
MEENA BOSE: Well, one interesting example that I was thinking about just as we were talking about foreign policy is, in the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were in a very tight race, and in October of 1960 Martin Luther King was arrested during a civil rights protest. John F. Kennedy called Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, to express his sorrow that Martin Luther King had been arrested. Richard Nixon considered making a phone call, but then decided he should stay out of the situation altogether.
Well, Martin Luther King’s father was so touched by Kennedy’s phone call that he announced that he was going to vote for Kennedy. He said that he hadn’t been planning to vote for Kennedy because Kennedy was catholic, but now he was going to change his vote. Did that affect the outcome? Hard to say, but it was less than 120,000 votes.
GWEN IFILL: Lawrence Walsh in 1992 famously indicted members of the Bush administration having to do with Iran-Contra, and at the time, if you were young enough to remember, that was really– or old enough– we always remember that seemed like it was going to have a huge effect. Did it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it did. Friday before the 1992 election, 2:20 in the afternoon, it was… this indictment was announced and also some suggestion that George Bush the elder had more to do with Iran-Contra than he had thought. The polls show that Bush the elder had been getting traction on the issue of honesty and integrity against Bill Clinton.
At that moment his polls began to go down, and there was not much chance that he would win. We probably saw the same thing in 2000 on the… late in the week before Election Day, there emerged the news that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in the mid-1970s. The issue that was helping Bush an awful lot was the fact that he would restore honesty and integrity to the White House. What the numbers show is that on that issue this hurt him.
GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, and I can give you the unemployment number… picture. For example, back in 1976 the Ford-Carter race: Ford had basically eliminated a 33-point deficit in the polls.
The Harris Poll showed he actually had gone ahead by one point the last weekend. Some unemployment numbers came out, some other economic statistics that indicated the recovery that Ford was boasting of, claiming at least, had at the very least stalled. I think it caused second thoughts in enough voters so that at the very last minute they moved back and Jimmy Carter narrowly won.
GWEN IFILL: The notion of the use of the word “surprise” assumes that it’s something that nobody could have predicted, but, you know, the term “wag the dog” has now come to mean it’s kind of a manipulated surprise, something which was meant to affect the outcome.
How many… in how many cases do these… are these surprises not really surprises at all for people on the inside who are trying to change the outcome, Meena?
MEENA BOSE: Well, that’s a good question. I think a lot of times they’re surprises in the sense in the sense not of changes in policy, but of announcements of what will come that may not have been directly planned beforehand, but at least there was some thought put into it. I’m thinking of one case in particular, 1952.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was in a contest with Adlai Stevenson. Now, this was not a close contest, but nevertheless there were a lot of questions about the Korean War, and October I think it was 24, 1952, Eisenhower announces that he’s going to go to Korea. He says, “I shall go to Korea to see for myself what needs to be done.”
Now, I think that that statement solidified his victory over Stevenson and was in some ways considered an issue that had been considered by the campaign.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But what you’re saying is so right because the term “October Surprise” comes out of 1980, because the Reagan people were worried that Jimmy Carter would commit some kind of October surprise, meaning something that would suddenly cause the hostages to be released and carter to win the election against Ronald Reagan, and now there’s a lot of suspicion and there are some people to this day who believe that one version of it is that George Bush the elder, the vice presidential candidate, flew to Paris in an SR-1 spy plane to have a secret meeting with some French people and some Iranians to try to foil this. People are suspicious.
But if you talk to Bush people, they feel that in 1992 a partisan special prosecutor caused that news to be announced the Friday before, and also in 2000 the drunk driving.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, we look at all the unpredictables right now, we see what’s happening with new bombings in Israel and in Chechnya and in Darfur, and all kinds of possible things which could change the outcome, including our own economic situation, how do presidents, or how have presidents braced for this, or is this something they just have to sit back and take as it comes?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It goes with the oath of office. You know, Harry Truman said that being president was like riding the tiger, and that is never truer than in a campaign year in a wartime situation, where you have an iffy economy. It goes with the job.
GWEN IFILL: Richard Norton Smith, Meena Bose, Michael Beschloss, thank you all very much.
GUESTS IN UNISON: Thank you.