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Think It’s Bad for the GOP Now? Wait for an October Surprise

A wild Tuesday for Republicans, complete with plea deals and indictments, may be just the tip of the iceberg

You don’t have to be the Oracle at Delphi to realize that any further news from special counsel Robert Mueller could change the course of the midterms, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
You don’t have to be the Oracle at Delphi to realize that any further news from special counsel Robert Mueller could change the course of the midterms, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — This is the golden age of political horoscopes — sophisticated projection systems designed to forecast the 2018 elections.

Whether primarily based on the generic ballot (voters currently prefer the Democrats by an 8-point margin) or detailed rundowns of individual races (roughly three dozen GOP-held seats are seriously imperiled), these forecasts all assume that no major external events will upend the political mood before Election Day.

But even before Russian meddling, the outside world — including the economy and unexpected scandals — was rarely respectful of the sanctity of the American electoral system.

For example, during the week before the 1956 elections, Israel (aided by Britain and France) invaded Egypt and seized the Suez Canal. And Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to crush the popular uprising calling for the creation of a multi-party democracy.

These two grave international crises — still unfolding as the voters went to polls — contributed to Dwight Eisenhower’s landslide re-election victory and a status-quo verdict in the congressional balloting.

The most frightening moments of the Cold War occurred in late October 1962 as John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev went eyeball-to-eyeball over Soviet missiles in Cuba. With nuclear averted on Oct. 28, JFK’s popularity jumped to 74 percent in a Gallup poll.

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The national sense of relief was immediately reflected in the midterm elections: Democrats lost only four House seats and actually gained two Senate seats as a new generation of liberal Democrats (George McGovern, Birch Bayh and Gaylord Nelson) defined the party in the 1960s and early 1970s.

On the domestic front, the 2006 Mark Foley sex scandal (the Florida congressman resigned in late September after sending explicit emails to a Capitol page) helped bring Nancy Pelosi to power as the Democrats took back the House for the first time in 12 years.

American politics are still partly shaped by the lingering anger from the catastrophic 2008 financial meltdown, which was triggered by the mid-September collapse of Lehman Brothers. The resulting economic panic all but guaranteed the election of Barack Obama and led to Democratic pickups of 21 House and 8 Senate seats.

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Now back to 2018.

Right now, the consensus of soothsayers suggests that the Democrats will take back the House. Nate Silver, for example, at his FiveThirtyEight website gives the Democrats a 73 percent chance of regaining the speaker’s gavel, and his model suggest a pickup of 34 House seats.

But when you factor in the possibility of the unexpected, I would argue that the Democrats’ chances to win the House are actually higher. On the Senate side, the daunting map for Democrats still makes it a stretch, regardless of external events.

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Obviously, if I could predict the future, including black-swan events, I would be in a more lucrative racket than journalism. But when you think of the Trump presidency and the various types of potential October surprises, it is hard to concoct a scenario that would aid the Republicans.

Consider some possibilities.

On Wednesday, Wall Street is on target to set a new record for the longest bull market in history, more than nine years after the S&P 500 hit its low in the Great Recession. Maybe the stock market and the economy will continue to defy gravity like Mary Poppins traveling around London powered by an umbrella. But more likely, there is a correction somewhere on the horizon.

Remember that the economy is all that stands between Trump and approval ratings reminiscent of Richard Nixon during Watergate. A surprise contraction before the election would weaken GOP arguments that they should be rewarded for passing the deficit-ballooning tax bill.

In similar fashion, Trump’s cockamamie strategy of launching a major trade war with China could prompt a major backlash. At some point, hard-pressed voters might recoil against plant closings and higher prices at Walmart.

If you think that was bad …

With Trump fixer Michael Cohen cutting a plea deal with federal prosecutors on Tuesday and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort convicted on eight counts in federal court, it is possible that explosive new revelations before the election could shake the faith of even some loyal Republicans that the president’s conduct is above reproach.

True, it is unlikely that we will hear much directly from Robert Mueller before the election. Without claiming insider knowledge from a prosecution team that doesn’t leak, it seems obvious that Mueller has learned from James Comey’s mistakes not to do or say anything publicly in the run-up to an election.

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But with Moscow trying to hack everything from anti-Trump conservative think tanks to (maybe) the lesson plans for liberal preschools, even Fox News talking heads eventually have to concede that canoodling with Russia is not a winning issue for Republicans.

Maybe the White House is right in believing that Trump’s temper-tantrum tweets and outrageous claims at rallies fire up the GOP base. But there is an inherent danger in his continuing to juggle firecrackers on the eve of an election.

Normally, a foreign crisis with, say, Iran or Trump’s new buddies in North Korea would be expected to buttress the party in power. But, remember, Trump has not been tested by anything more dangerous than nasty statements from Kim Jong Un. Nothing about Trump’s tenure in the White House offers any comfort that the president would provide a steady hand in a crisis.

Predicting the unpredictable is a mug’s game, so the chances are that I have been too timid in guessing at the imponderables that might affect the elections. But if the status quo looks dismal for House Republicans, the unanticipated future is likely to be even worse.

And now I will rush off to double-check my predictions with the Oracle at Delphi. Or if she is busy with her other media appearances, I will settle for a shake of my Magic 8-Ball.

Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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