by Shlomi Simhi
The set of debates is over, the polls show a closer race than ever, but it just might be that the presidential election will be decided by an event that hasn’t occurred yet. As October moves to its end, the possibility of an “October Surprise,” an event that would change the outcome of November 2nd elections, is diminishing. But it ain’t over until October is over.
So, what if there were a terrorist attack? Can political scientists predict the consequences it might have? Why do people have a common view that such an attack would serve President Bush? And how much do terrorists really care about who sits in the oval office?
In the past few months, American intelligence agencies have continued to collect fresh information reaffirming earlier government warnings that terrorist groups are intent on launching an attack aimed at “affecting the democratic process.” The lack of experience with pre-election terror in the United States leads most people who think of the potential consequences to learn from history. Almost all of them go back to the same place—Spain.
Four train bombings in Madrid on March 11 killed nearly 200 people. The incumbent conservative government supported the war on Iraq and had slight edge according to some polls. Sound familiar?
Three days later and in the wake of the attack, Spain's voters rejected Jose Maria Aznar's ruling Popular Party in favor of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialists. Al Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack. Immediately following the elections, administration officials and right-wing media pundits in the Unites States denounced the Spanish population for learning the “wrong lesson” from the terrorist attacks and for “appeasing” terrorism.
Professor Robert Jervis, a widely respected international affairs scholar from Columbia University, doesn’t agree with this comparison. “In the Madrid case it’s not clear if it really turned the elections,” he said. “First of all, the government initially tried to blame ETA, Basque Armed Group, and it made it look incompetent. Second, some polls showed that it was more of a tie, than a right-wing lead.”
Professor Merrill Shanks, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, also sees a distinction between the United States and Spain: “The circumstances were very special, because there you had an unpopular war in the first place,” he said. Professor Brigitte Nacos, an expert on Mass Media and Terrorism at Columbia University, said that even if there was a change in the outcome of the elections in Spain, it shouldn’t be attributed to the terrorism. “It was an indirect effect, and the terrorists had no way to anticipate that the Spanish government would react they way it did,” she said.
Most political scientists agree that an attack works in favor of the incumbent president. “Anything that works on politics of fear, works in favor of the president”, said Professor Jervis. “Also, there is some truth in the argument that the crazier the world gets, the more it plays to the theme of the President’s campaign.”
Another factor that might play a role is the magnitude of the attack. “The bigger the attack is,” said Professor Henry Brady, UC Berkeley Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, “the greater the rally around the flag effect will be.”
As the election date gets closer, Senator Kerry’s prospects of gaining advantage from such an event are diminishing. “In the case of an attack immediately before the elections, it would help Bush because people will be angry and we will see them rally around the President,” said Professor Avery Goldstein, a political scientist who specializes in International Relations and Security Studies. “On the other hand, if the attack is several weeks before, then it might help Kerry, because we will have time to have a discussion about the fact that the administration hasn’t kept the United States as safe as the President promised.”
Dr. Michael McDonald, Assistant Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution, explained why the timing might be critical for Kerry’s prospects. “The only way it can help him is if someone is able to prove Bush’s incompetence in dealing with the threats. Since we are so close to the elections, I can’t see how such investigative reporting can be published before the elections.”
Dr. McDonald said that an ‘October Surprise’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a terrorist attack. “It can also be the capture of Osama Bin Laden, or anything else that we can’t even think of.” The term, which is used this year to describe a large scope of potential surprises, comes from the 1980 campaign and the maneuvering around the release of the American hostages in Iran. It refers to an event engineered or manipulated by one of the campaigns – usually the incumbent president.
In a briefing for reporters last month about the pre-election threat, senior counterterrorism officials said that while intelligence repeatedly indicates that al-Qaida operatives oppose President Bush, no evidence has been found that they hope a successful attack might boost the candidacy of Senator Kerry. The anti-Bush sentiments, the officials said, are part of a broader hatred of the United States and Western democracies as a whole. "It's really not for our consumption," one official said of the motive behind the attack. "It's for their supporters.”
“You do terrorists attacks when you can, so it is hard believe they can do fine tuning and time it just before the elections,” said Professor Jervis. In Professor Brady’s opinion, the terrorists don’t care about changing the outcome of elections; they just want to create havoc. “Kerry and Bush are the same for the terrorists,” Brady said.
The argument that the terrorist are doing it for their supporters seems to be a “sensible analysis’’ said Professor Goldstein. “Whoever the president is, he will continue the war against terror. Neither candidate will withdraw from Iraq after such an attack. After all,” Goldstein said, “if we can’t figure out how such an attack will influence on the elections, they surely can not…”