The October Surprise has a long, storied and mostly exaggerated history. Richard Nixon's White House announcing a potential peace deal in Vietnam just two weeks before the 1972 election wasn't the reason he won by 20 points. Sen. John Kerry blamed his 2004 loss on a video tape released by Osama bin Laden days before the election, but few others do. A decades-old drunken driving arrest revealed the week before the 2000 election probably didn't cost George W. Bush many votes.
But strategists and campaign staffers are always nervous about late-breaking developments that can influence voters at exactly the moment they begin paying attention to coming elections. Whether a timely leak of incriminating research or a foolish comment made before the cameras, this year, several candidates across the country are suffering from their own unwelcome surprises.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, the Tennessee Republican, is one candidate whose October is going awry. A physician who walloped Democrat Lincoln Davis in 2010, DesJarlais looked set for a long career in Congress, especially after the state legislature added several rural counties to his district during the decennial redistricting process; DesJarlais's new district gave almost 63 percent of the vote to John McCain in 2008.
But the freshman has been under fire in recent weeks after the Huffington Post published a transcript of a September 2000 phone call between DesJarlais and a woman with whom he was having an affair. DesJarlais, who taped the call himself, asked the woman to have an abortion. On Sunday, the Chattanooga Times Free-Press published an account from another woman -- who, like the first, had been a patient of DesJarlais's when the affair began -- who said they had used drugs together.
Democrats saw an opening. House Majority PAC, the biggest super PAC backing House Democrats this year, began advertising in the district after the revelations, and a poll conducted by Democratic firm Myers Research & Strategic Services showed DesJarlais clinging to a slim 49 percent to 44 percent lead over state Sen. Eric Stewart. The district, which stretches from the Kentucky border to the Alabama border, is spread out enough that it will be difficult for Stewart to spread a late-breaking story, but the press has been bad enough that DesJarlais now finds himself in serious jeopardy.
Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock is also scrambling to recover from a self-inflicted political wound. At a debate last week, Mourdock said a life created by rape is something God intended to happen; Democrats pounced, and the comments have played across Hoosier media virtually non-stop ever since.
(WHO SAID IT?: Statements on Rape Cause Firestorm)
Pollsters had already predicted a close race between Mourdock, who defeated long-time Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, and Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. But Mourdock's comments sent his numbers into a tailspin. A Democratic survey released late last week showed Donnelly taking a seven-point lead, while Mourdock countered with his own poll showing the race tied.
Even top Republican strategists now believe Mourdock is running behind. Both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee are spending more than $1 million on television ads during the race's final week. While Indiana's social conservative bent could blunt the negative impact of Mourdock's remarks, the fact that Democrats lead a race in a very red state is indicative of the challenge Republicans face in taking over the Senate.
Despite the relative dearth of undecided voters, President Obama and Mitt Romney have each handed the other a late gift. Romney's comments on the 47 percent of America who wouldn't vote for him, made at a fundraiser in May and leaked in a video in September, hurt the Republican brand enough that the party's poll numbers sank across the board. Obama's performance at the first debate, a lackluster effort that both Al Gore and John Kerry blamed on the altitude, sent Democratic poll numbers plunging to new depths.
With a week to go, one more surprise -- a mega-storm barreling up the East Coast -- has already begun to impact the race. As Hurricane Sandy winds its way toward landfall, both Romney and Obama have cancelled events in key swing states; Romney nixed a Sunday appearance in Virginia Beach, while Obama has cancelled planned Monday stops in Virginia and Colorado in order to monitor the storm from the White House. Democrats quietly fret that bad weather will have a negative impact on their ability to get voters to the polls during early voting windows.
But the storm is an opportunity for Obama to look presidential, to lead in a time of crisis and use the power of the bully pulpit one more time. It's also a challenge, as Obama's predecessor found out. No single incident damaged George W. Bush's administration more than the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. Now, anything that goes wrong so close to Election Day threatens to reflect badly on the administration.
In a year marked by surprises, it's fitting, if more than a little terrifying for both parties, that one more unforeseen occurrence will dominate the final week.