With two more to go before the Nov. 6 election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney demonstrated without question that debates could dramatically change the narrative of a high stakes presidential campaign. A badly scarred President Obama will have a chance on Tuesday to regain his equilibrium and slow Romney’s surge in the polls with a strong performance at a town hall meeting style debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
“Governor Romney had a good night; I had a bad night,” Obama told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer last week in describing his politically disastrous encounter in Denver Oct. 3. “If you have a bad game you just move on, you look forward to the next one, and it makes you that much more determined.”
Tens of millions of Americans will be tuning in tomorrow evening to find out whether the heretofore lethargic chief executive can spring to life and get the better of Romney in their second encounter. Vice President Joe Biden demonstrated in his showdown last Thursday against Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan that Democrats still have plenty of fire in their bellies, even though the GOP lawmaker was unflappable.
But regardless of their outcome, the debates are only part of the equation in determining who the next president will be. Other events in the closing days of the race could easily deliver that classic October Surprise. As the recent violent anti-U.S. protests throughout the Middle East and the terrorist attack in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other government employees showed, unforeseen events can rapidly change the complexion of the campaign.
The Obama administration gave the GOP an opening by allowing constantly shifting public explanations for what happened in Benghazi on Sept. 11 when militants attacked two U.S. compounds in the eastern Libyan city. Romney and congressional Republican leaders cited the deaths of the four Americans as evidence of a security breach and failed administration policies in the tumultuous Middle East.
By contrast, Obama’s claim that the long-suffering economy is improving was greatly buttressed by an Oct. 5 Labor Department report reporting that the unemployment rate dipped below 8 percent for the first time in his tenure.
“Debates count, but events in the real world can count more,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist with the Claremont McKenna College in California.
With the political calendar rapidly winding down to only 23 days before the election, there are a handful of other events that could help or hurt Obama and Romney as they struggle for control of the White House.
- A final round of national employment numbers. The Labor Department will issue the October jobs report just four days before Election Day. Democrats gleefully celebrated the September numbers, showing a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, and a subsequent release that put new claims for jobless benefits fell at their lowest level in more than four and a half years. Another upbeat report helps the president seal his argument that his economic policies are working.
- State-by-state unemployment numbers on Oct. 23. While the national jobless numbers are an important index of the recovery as a whole, unemployment in individual states gives a fuller reading of the situation in decisive battlegrounds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida. The Romney campaign is desperate to overcome Obama’s lead in Ohio, a state that every Republican presidential nominee had to carry to win the election. The economy has bubbled back to life in the Buckeye state, where the unemployment rate is currently 7.2 percent, well below the national average.
- Layoffs – This has been another bad year for layoffs, with more than 352,185 people laid off or fired, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a major employee outplacement firm. Among the worst layoffs were 1,300 at Cisco Systems, 1,200 at Archer-Daniels-Midland, 1,000 at Texas Instruments and 1,000 at Patriot Coal, according to a report by Business Insider. Another round just before the election would be bad news for the president and good news for Romney.
This helps to explain why the Obama administration went to great lengths to discourage the aero space and defense industry from sending out tens of thousands of letters to employees just before the election warning of likely layoffs if Congress and the administration failed to block deep automatic cuts in the defense budget set to take effect in early January.
Lockheed Martin and other major defense contractors recently backed down from issuing layoff letters as required under federal law after the Obama administration promised to cover their severance costs in the event of sequestration. That decision was welcome news for Obama, who faced the prospect of mass layoffs in Virginia and other battleground states just days before the election.
- Earnings season – Obama rode to the White House in 2008 on a stock market crash—and third quarters earnings season gets into full gear on Monday with projections by FactSet that corporate revenues were flat and earnings fell by 2.7 percent. The S&P 500 index increased by 5.76 percent during that same period.
That leaves three possible scenarios to explain what happened: The Federal Reserve bolstered stocks by launching a third round of quantitative easing; companies will beat those negative projections; or investors will conclude the market is overvalued. A swing in stocks affects consumer confidence in a reelection where—this time—Obama would prefer a surging market. So far the market has seen weak earnings by aluminum-maker Alcoa and oil company Chevron, but a 36 percent jump in Q3 profits for the bank JP MorganChase to $5.71 billion.
- The volatile Middle East -- While the killings of Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda operatives have weakened the terrorist network, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya and the rise of groups affiliated with al Qaeda in the Middle East and North Africa presents a serious threat to U.S. security and interests. Another high profile attack against the U.S. before the election could enhance Romney’s argument that Obama is a timid commander in chief who lacks an effective strategy for that region.
Pitney said the history of presidential campaigns is littered with last minute surprises at home and abroad that tipped the outcome of a close race. President Jimmy Carter’s failed last minute efforts to end the prolonged Iranian hostage crisis helped Republican Ronald Reagan unseat him in 1980. The 2008 economic crisis coming at the tail end of the Bush administration dealt a fatal blow to the candidacy of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
A stock market crash, another serious flare up in the Middle East or a worsening of the European debt crisis later this month could further harm Obama’s bid for reelection. Pitney said that even with continued improvement in the unemployment picture it would be hard to imagine another economic event that would dramatically improve the president’s standing before Election Day.
“Perceptions on the economy are largely fixed, so it would take a pretty big event to change them dramatically,” Pitney said. “And big events are likely to be unfavorable to the president.”
Josh Boak of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report