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In Politics, Expect the Unexpected

I was on a panel at an event in the nation’s capital Sept. 10. The subject was the elections, and another panelist and I discussed the race for the White House and the fight for control of Congress.

Toward the end of the event, someone in the audience asked about foreign policy. Does it matter in this election cycle? I was quick to reply. “No,” I said confidently, noting that the elections are all about the economy. The other panelist generally agreed, adding that he thought it was unfortunate, but also true, that the candidates and most voters weren’t paying attention to foreign policy issues.

Just a couple of days later, foreign policy became a major topic of discussion, both in the presidential race and for the media, after the killing of a U.S. ambassador in Libya, attacks on the U.S. embassy in Egypt and a mini-controversy regarding the reaction of GOP presidential nominee  Mitt Romney’s campaign to the attacks.

Unforeseen events can always alter the trajectory of an election. That’s what happened in the Middle East last week, with the ambassador’s death and when the Israeli government signaled its preference in the U.S. presidential race. It happened, too, when the Federal Reserve announced another round of quantitative easing, which produced a noticeable surge in stocks.

Any single one of those events could have been enough to alter the political terrain of the 2012 presidential race. But in fact, the trajectory of the 2012 race may well have changed a week earlier, when, contrary to almost everyone’s expectations, the Democratic National Convention altered the thinking of a small but important number of people about the nature of the 2012 presidential election.

I don’t know any independent analyst or reporter who expected the party conventions to be decisive. Given the nation’s polarization and after months of TV advertising in key states by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, it seemed unlikely that a few speeches would change sentiment enough to affect the race.

But while the GOP convention played to form – there was no bump, no remaking of the contest – the Democratic convention produced something significant.

What seems to have happened in Charlotte, N.C., is that Democrats sold the argument to an important slice of the electorate that four years isn’t a true test of President Barack Obama’s ability to turn around the country and that he deserves another term to finish the job.

The convention produced an uptick in the “right direction/wrong track” numbers in a handful of surveys, but even more importantly, it apparently convinced some voters that the president has started the economy on the road to recovery after he found it much worse off than anyone expected.

President Bill Clinton’s comment that “even he” couldn’t have turned things around in just four years may not deserve credit for the convention’s success, but it may sum up the conclusion a few more people had after the convention than before it.

Obama’s bump coming out of Charlotte was not large. His standing improved by 2 or 3 points and Romney’s slid a couple of points. But in a tight race, with few undecided or “movable” voters, that is a significant move in opinion, and in the shape of the race.

It’s also significant that it occurred right after August numbers were released, showing another poor month of job creation. While the unemployment rate fell, only 96,000 new jobs were created in August and hundreds of thousands of Americans stopped looking for work.

But these depressing numbers didn’t turn more Americans against the president’s re-election. That suggests that the poor economy is already baked into the election outlook and that a crucial sliver of the electorate has concluded that although the outlook is bad, the president deserves another four years to try to turn the economy around.

If this description of the landscape is accurate, it means Romney has just less than seven weeks to change current sentiment. The debates constitute an obvious opportunity, and while the August jobs numbers had little effect, really bad jobs numbers announced in early October or early November could still be important.

And then, of course, there are those unexpected events that can turn a seemingly predictable election into a head-scratcher. Romney mischaracterizes 47 percent of the electorate and the president of the United States suddenly doesn’t know whether Egypt is an ally.

Since the conventions, things have deteriorated further for Romney. He seems to spend more time putting himself on the defensive than Obama, and the media death watch is well under way, as evidenced by the process stories about dissension in the Romney campaign and the feeding frenzy about a Romney statement at a fundraiser. The Obama campaign continues to outshine the Republican’s in almost every aspect.

The burden is now on the GOP to change the trajectory of the race to deny Obama a second term. That will be very difficult, but this has been a very strange political year and a half, so anything is possible.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.