Spin Cycles and the End of the October Surprise
Monday, Nov 01, 2004
Here we are, 24 hours from the General Election, and despite an unexpected appearance from Osama, neither candidate has dropped a bomb in the last couple weeks. The weekly 'hot point' issues like the missing Al Qa Qaa explosives and Sinclair's airing of 'Stolen Honor' have been spun by the candidates and hung out to dry by the media. While presidential elections have often been plagued by the dreaded 'October Surprise,' times aren't what they were four years ago, and the campaigns may be adapting.

Four years ago, the average media cycle took around two days to take hold. The time from an incident or anouncement to media's pickup of the event, to transmission to the public through the nightly news or daily paper would usually take a full day, with second-order meta-commentary about what the event means and how we should feel about it not coming down for another two or three days. Actual public opinion change is strongest after a general concensus is made and it could take four days to a week for an incident's aftermath to fully manifest itself in polling numbers.

Over the past four years the way people get and disseminate new information has shifted dramatically. A reasonably large percentage of the public is online at work or at home during the day, and can find out new developments within hours of their occurance. When important news breaks, these wired readers are quick to spread word through IM, email, cellphones, or a shout over the cube wall. While media's incidence-to-opinion period has dropped from several days to several hours, the public's ability to propogate news quickly has grown at an even faster rate.

With the presidential race closer than any since 1916, it doesn't take a big surge to put either candidate over the top, and while the media opinion of any large announcement is hard to predict, the snap first-impression of the public is far more ascertainable, both due to focus testing and because it's more deterministic, where media opinion is more chaotic with a small number of influencers' opinions changing others until a concensus (or conventional wisdom) is discovered and reported.

Since the need is so small, and the safest way to influence the voters is by using the media as a reporting mechanism instead of a mechanism of commentary, it seems that the weapon of choice for this election is the November Surprise, most likely the 'Election Morning' surprise. A large and urgent announcement, not directly related to the presidential race, made immediately after the morning radio talkshows have gone off the air in the Central time zone (the vital races are in Central and Eastern and every hour is critical) between 11am and 12pm Eastern time, would likely be heard by 30% of voters before they have gone to the polls. Depending on the nature of the announcement, it could cause a significant sway in undecideds, possibly enough to turn a state or two.

The veracity of the claim wouldn't be known until after the election is completed. While claiming that Osama has been captured would be difficult to defend against when the truth came out a few days later, saying that several dozen people were killed in a stronghold where he was believed to be hiding out ("more information to come as we get it!") is more plausable, accomplishes much the same effect, and is easier for the administration to distance themselves from after the fact, when he turns out to still be alive.

To protect against a snap-backfire -- a media which includes along with their first report an opinion that this may be an election tactic -- the announcement's timing would have to seem plausably uncontrollable, so the above Osama scenario would be more difficult to pull off. In light of last week's Osama video it becomes more plausable, however, when the CIA claims that their intel on his location is related either to information contained with the video, or a retracing of the path by which the video came in to U.S. hands.

One thing is certain, however; such a 'November Surprise' scenario could not be taken by Kerry, since his duties don't have the scope that would allow for a 'breaking news' level announcement that is not directly related to the election.

The other possibility is a replay of Spain's pre-election bombings, though I doubt it, since it's unclear who such an attack would benefit. It's possible that Osama's timing of his video was to test the waters. If the video pushed Kerry up a point or two, then an attack would be likely to increase that margin. The scenario is reversed if the video helped Bush. Who Osama would prefer in the white house is an open question, though most people hold their own opinions, which coincidentally are almost always that he wants whoever they aren't planning on voting for.

I hope there isn't a November Surprise, though I'd bet that even in the absence of an administration announcement, other groups will try for one.

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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
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