The events that have transpired recently in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East should remind all of us about the danger of pretending that we know how the 2012 presidential election will unfold. We can study polls, historical election data, the Electoral College map, the growth in the gross domestic product, the stubborn unemployment rate, and changes in real disposable income all we want, but we have to recognize that unexpected events will happen.
In a 2007 book, Lebanese philosopher and mathematician Nassim Taleb postulated that most great events and discoveries can’t be predicted, only explained in retrospect. He called the concept the “black swan” theory since no one would expect to see such a bird. “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
Many years ago, I stumbled across a simpler variation of this idea while touring the 15th-century Ryoan-ji, “the temple of the dragon at peace” in Kyoto, Japan. Think of a stone garden with 15 strategically placed, moss-covered boulders. No matter how you look at the garden, you can never see all 15 rocks at any one time. There is always at least one obstructed from view.
Those who practice or observe politics should keep in mind that there is always something that you don’t, and probably can’t, know. But even when an unanticipated event occurs, it isn’t always clear how it will cut politically. The older ones of us remember the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis: 52 American citizens were seized when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun after the shah was deposed in 1979. Just days into the crisis, Ted Koppel starting closing his late-evening ABC News broadcast with the words “America Held Hostage,” followed by the duration of the ordeal, as in “Day 137.” (The Koppel program later morphed into what we know today as Nightline.)
Taleb’s “black swan” theory postulated that most great events and discoveries can’t be predicted.
In effect, President Carter was the 53rd American hostage. The crisis drove home a message that Carter was politically impotent, and it was no small factor in the Georgian’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
When we look back at that crisis, we should not be surprised that it may have cost Carter reelection. But who could have been sure where the fallout would hit when terrorists blew up a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers? The suicide bombing that marked the single deadliest day for the Marine Corps since Iwo Jima could have been politically catastrophic for a first-term president less than 13 months away from the election.
But the tragedy and subsequent withdrawal of U.S. troops didn’t cost President Reagan a single point in Gallup polling. It happened just as the U.S. economy was getting back on its feet from the 1982-83 recession and as unemployment was dropping sharply. Just two days after the bombing, the U.S. invaded Grenada and rescued American medical students—a move that was very popular here and helped divert attention from Lebanon. It also helped that Americans did not see Reagan as weak or impotent. He went on to become one of the most celebrated presidents of the 20th century. But the day after the bombing, when American troops were withdrawing, who knew?
In some ways, it is easier to focus on the economy and jobs than on the panoply of potential trouble spots around the world. My hunch is that if unemployment drops to near 8 percent, President Obama’s reelection hopes will improve dramatically, but if it is nearer 9 percent, voters might be in a less-forgiving mood. But although unemployment, economic growth, and income data are regularly reported and easily monitored, an international crisis can develop as far away as Jordan and as close as Mexico—and can spin in totally unanticipated ways. That’s why we have to keep the black swan theory in mind.
Too often, people are focused on the “October surprise,” an incredibly cynical view most often found among extreme partisans on both sides who assume that there is absolutely nothing that those in the other party wouldn’t do, no depth they wouldn’t stoop to, if they think it will win the election. This view assumes that strategists can control events and how they are perceived, a very bold assumption, in my view. My advice is to forget the October surprise and fear the black swan.
This article appears in the February 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.