10/27/2012 09:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

October Surprise Shows Ever-Loosening Grip On Commonest Courtesies: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Oct. 26

At about this time in the 2008 presidential election season, a young woman named Ashley Todd went crazy in Pittsburgh. Todd, a volunteer for John McCain's campaign, got Pittsburgh's law enforcement authorities, and the entire political media, into a hot and bothered lather after she went to the police claiming to have been the victim of a violent mugging. According to her account, an African American supporter of then-candidate Barack Obama attacked her, and having identified her as a McCain supporter, carved the letter "B" on her face. The story blew up on -- where else? -- Matt Drudge's website, and it became one of those quasi-October surprises for about a hot minute.

Of course, after that hot minute had passed, it all came out that Todd had basically snapped, and the whole thing had been made-up -- literally engineered, with Todd using Twitter to "set the scene" before the "crime" took place. Of course, the biggest clue that Todd was perpetrating that hoax was the carving on her face -- the "B" was backwards, as if it had been done in a mirror.

In a funny way, the Ashley Todd story is a bit like the Benghazi story -- the political world ran away from reality on a raft of sketchy details before all the facts were known. The McCain campaign, believing themselves to have lucked into some sort of eleventh-hour game-changer, stupidly pushed an embellished version of the story, well ahead of the fact-gathering process. But in the end, the story didn't alter the election in any significant way. Ashley Todd was just someone who had gone nuts in the last two weeks before the election.

If you're wondering, "Where is Ashley Todd now?" Well, we have an answer for you -- part of her lives in all of us. And when the presidential debate season winds down, and the "substantive" (using that term very loosely) portion of the campaign season starts to fade, and we're staring down the final, desperate fortnight sprint to destiny -- that's when that little bit of bonkers loves to pop out. This is the season of the twitch, so let's take a moment to pick up every stitch.

Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray, one of our nominees for the It-Getter Hall of Fame, gets it -- noticing right off the crack of the week that the campaign season was quickly tilting in the direction of madness. We had Gloria Allred attempting to gin up an "October Surprise" on Mitt Romney -- a convoluted bit of junk pertaining to an old divorce trial, in which Romney offered testimony on behalf of former Staples CEO Tom Stemberg that might have been fact-fudgy, but doesn't seem to offer any compelling reason for the Romney campaign to worry. Of course, we also had Donald Trump's dumb extortion stunt, which if anything, made Allred look positively Atticus Finchy by comparison.

In addition, we have Ginger White returning for a second bite of the 2012 meta-scandal apple. Do you remember who that was? You'll have to think way back! Sarah Palin chimed in on Libya, because she noticed no one was asking for her opinion and she felt left out. Ann Coulter decided to gratuitously insult the developmentally-disabled, we suppose because no one had done so yet, and someone had to check off that box.

Romneyville is starting to show some cray-cray cracks as the final stretch begins. Witness the bizarre reactions of campaign surrogates to the utterly banal news that Gen. Colin Powell decided to ...do something he's already done once before -- endorse President Barack Obama. It's no mystery why he's done so: Powell is historically on the outs with the foreign policy philosophy that's come to dominate the contemporary Republican Party, and he prefers Obama's approach.

Everyone knows this. But Romney backers John McCain and John Sununu decided to set their hair on fire, all the same. McCain -- who is clearly deep down a 2008-flashback K-hole right now, insisted that Powell "harmed his legacy." (Ironically, the reason Powell is endorsing Obama is because he is trying to atone for his Second Iraq War legacy, but you can't expect McCain to appreciate this.) Sununu, on the other hand, took it much further, alleging that Powell's support is solely melanin-based. This says a lot more about Sununu than it does about Powell -- after all, Richard Danzig supports Obama for the same reasons as Powell, and has been far less kind to Romney, but Sununu isn't stepping on his Caucasian brother over it.

McCain and Sununu are talking like loser campaigns talk, and Romney, who is trying to project the idea that he is secretly winning the race, isn't aided in this effort by his campaign surrogates broadcasting their bitter, petty resentments. But Romney is getting some help from the Obama campaign people themselves, who are giving into the madness of the final fortnight in their own way.

One of the other things that Rosie Gray observed, was that the Obama campaign is once again, trying to make Seamus happen. This is part of a larger trend of Team Obama Re-Elect's overall messaging strategy degenerating into a silly meme-engineering operation. They, too, are carving the letter "B" into the face of America -- it this case, it stands for Big Bird, Binders, or Bayonets, depending on what day it is. It makes for good news cycle sauce and Twitter retweets and viral joke-Photoshop collages, but it comes at a cost. As John Cook explains, you can't even recognize the old Obama anymore:

Obama has taken to using "Romnesia" to describe Romney's inability or unwillingness to hew to a policy position for more than two weeks. "He's forgetting what his own positions are, and he's betting that you will, too," Obama said at a rally in Virginia last week. "We've got to name this condition that he's going through. I think it's called 'Romnesia.'" Today, summing up the debate, Obama called Romney's performance "at least Stage 3 Romnesia."

This is very, very dumb. Maybe "Romnesia" is a funny, handy term that usefully carries an important anti-Romney message. But even if it is, it is just too juvenile and jokey to be coming from the president. He shouldn't be making jokes based on his opponent's name. That's what vice presidents are for. Put it in John Kerry's mouth. He'll say anything.

But when Obama says it, it comes off as unserious and jocular. It's the kind of joke that, had a speechwriter proposed it four years ago, 2008 Obama would have smirked and said, "OK guys, let's get down to work." The term, it bears noting, was apparently coined on Twitter by a guy going by the name of @breakingnuts. This is not how you put away childish things.

It also doesn't make sense from a political strategy standpoint, because the audience for political memes are those who have already made up their minds on how to vote.

People like Mark Halperin really love this time of year, because the horse race manure they've based their career panning through is now in super-abundance. But there's a real dark side to this time of year. You see it in Ashley Todd, the woman who went crazy -- not in a fun way -- in the final two weeks of the campaign. And you see it in what happened to Sean Kedzie, son of Wisconsin state Sen. Neil Kedzie, who was beaten to a pulp by two men he confronted after he caught them trying to steal his Romney lawn sign. There's no words that describe Kedzie's assailants better than "sick" and "depraved."

Everyone likes to talk about a deeply polarized electorate, but the way people talk about it makes it sound like we all went out one day and decided to get polarized. The truth of the matter is that this long, dumb, substance-free process of petty politicians, cheap-minded proxies, debased campaign strategies, and impossible-to-escape attack ads are what does all the polarizing. Yes, there is a horse race, but we have become the horses, and our long, protracted campaign seasons are bad for America.

THE INERT ARGUE MOMENTUM: Meanwhile, as the country started to tip, slightly, in the direction of end-of-the-election insanity, the political media sort of took leave of their senses, and pitched themselves a weird little internecine war over which media outlets were being worked by whose campaign, for the purpose of spinning a narrative of "momentum."

Alec MacGillis essentially got the ball rolling with a lengthy critique of Politico and others, in which he accused these frantic-pants political chum-swallowers of allowing a false narrative of Romney having all this crazy game-changing momentum to "congeal" at a time when the evidence suggested that the race had actually fallen into a gravitational orbit with various fundamentals. Various Politico voices responded with objections -- the most natural one being that Romney did, nevertheless, exhibit some palpable momentum as a result of performing undeniably and objectively better in the first debate.

MacGillis went back in for another round, saying that these "retorts" were "bewildering" and looked past the point he was attempting to make. All the while, he was getting backed up by The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky, who declared that the day after the final debate to be "the most important single day of the campaign." Why? Well, it wasn't because of any issue of material relevance to the electorate. It was because it was a critical point in the media's narrative: would everyone finally get on board with the notion that Obama now had the "momentum?" Because, apparently, Americans save all of their thinking about the future, until they become convinced of the future's inevitability.

If this is the first you've heard of these people, and the veritable cloud-atlas of media meta-criticism they decided to crochet out of their feelings, do not feel bad. That you've not heard about any of this is pretty much the most important detail. Yes, both campaigns are spinning their success stories to places like Politico. And to a certain extent, getting a winning narrative planted can result in positive outcomes, if only because there are lots of voters who prefer to vote for the side they think is going to win.

But what all these insular media types are missing here in their arguments is that they are all insular media types, and if the grand narrative is being planted in Politico, then they are the ones who are affected by it most, because they are the audience for Politico's content. Its content is not for ordinary Americans, it is for cloistered Beltway insiders who think they understand ordinary Americans, and who happen to be seriously wrong about that.

Sure, details from a Politico story might ooze to local newspapers or cable news shows and thus create some near-indelible impressions about the state of the race. But real "momentum" in the electorate is stirred by other means -- people share opinions between each other in conversation and on Facebook, or they argue politics at the dinner table, or pals talk about election news during the football game. Ordinary people talk about the plant that just closed, or the local zoning crap that kept a business from opening, or their kids who are stuck overseas fighting a war.

And, yeah, sometimes your company's CEO emails employees a form letter telling you how to vote. So it goes.

And the campaigns, of course, stir this pot with their ground game -- door-knocking, phone banks, meet-ups, and the like -- where they try to provide a facsimile of this peer-to-peer contact, because they realize that all politics are personal. If this isn't where real "momentum" in the electorate is achieved, then every single campaign in America needs to rethink things, because it is at ground level where they are spending millions and millions of dollars to move handfuls of votes. If all it took to win was to get Mike Allen to say positive-sounding things about your campaign, we wouldn't need fundraisers -- Mike Allen will carry your water for free.

Naturally, if more political reporters took an active interest in the lives of ordinary Americans, no one would be fooled into thinking that they, somehow, as an occupational fraternity, are the sole keepers of the mysteries that cause election results to happen. But they by and large don't care about ordinary Americans, so they persist in this delusion.

Just leave them to this argument they are having with themselves and let it run its course.

SO, YOUR BOSS SENT YOU ONE OF THOSE EMAILS: As has been reported here and elsewhere, there have been many instances where the CEO of a company has sent a letter to their employees, darkly warning about grave repercussions if the results of the election do not turn out to the CEO's liking. (This is, naturally, something the Romney campaign has encouraged.) If you received such a missive, you may be wondering, "What should I do about it?"

We at the Speculatron are not in the business of telling you how to vote. In fact, we hope that all of you will vote according to your thoughts and beliefs, no matter who you select to elect. Many people will try to persuade you, and that's okay, but the only person who can convince you is you. So, state your convictions, knowing that even if you come to regret your decision, you still have those convictions in hand.

But you should really get a new job as soon as you can! We are as serious as a stroke about this.

Presidential elections happen every four years. And elections that could significantly alter the power structure in Washington happen even more frequently. All of these elections have consequences: laws get made or unmade, policies get pursued or dropped, and trajectories, priorities, baselines -- they all can change. But despite all this, one phenomenon we don't observe occurring every two years is the sight of a bunch of businesses or institutions collapsing overnight as a result of democracy's banalities.

If your boss tells you that the company you work for is not stable enough to survive an election, then the company you work for is not stable enough to survive stress of any kind. Successful CEOs say, "Come what may, this organization is prepared to adapt and pursue growth and profit." The CEOs that tell you otherwise are not particularly good at their jobs. And the more pressing problem is that the letter you got, urging you to vote in a certain way or you will lose your job, is your canary in a coal mine, telling you that there is some other fatal dysfunction happening at your workplace that's liable to put you out of work anyway.

It's a real tough economy to be switching jobs, but if you have been the recipient of one of these emails, you should nevertheless do what you can to extricate yourself from what is likely going to end badly. Get to know your company's competitors, and if they've not sent similar company-wide emails, consider making a move to a more stable environment, before you have to compete with all your current coworkers.

TWILIGHT OF THE BIRTHERS, MAYBE: You know, it wasn't too long ago that your Speculatroners would sit up late at night, bemoaning the fact that we didn't have much intimate contact with those Americans who devote their lives to sniffing household solvents recreationally. Then, like a bolt of joy into our lives came the swoony-loon birthers, with their bright ideas and their daffy emails and their willingness to fall behind Donald Trump -- a man who the rest of the world recognizes as a reality-TV clown with the belly-hair of a cocker spaniel glued to his scalp.

Should Obama win election, we've got four more glorious years to enjoy. But if he doesn't, we could be mere weeks from these glorious tin-foil hat days that we've long enjoyed. (A few birthers will stick around to harangue Marco Rubio, but it will probably feel like the Velvet Underground's 1993 reunion -- you'll recognize the parts you loved, but it just won't feel the same.)

And so their latest round of kooky-foo, here curated by Dave Weigel, is potentially their swan song. If that's the case, they go out as they came in: easily fooled, easily led, and eminently debunkable. This curio was originally sent to Vice Magazine, and it has an astonishingly hilarious interview with the person who is trying to pawn this off as real.

SUPER MEGA IMPORTANT ELECTION BELLWETHER DRUDGE SIREN OMG: Bad news for the Obama campaign this week -- potentially game-ending, in fact. Why won't the media discuss this? Per ABC News:

The president made a quick stop in his hometown of Chicago this afternoon to visit his local polling site. Obama, visibly exhausted from his dizzying campaign schedule, chatted with election workers as he filled out his paperwork.


The president then headed to the electronic voting booth across the room, saying a quick hello to the man in the booth next to him. After several minutes an election official came over and showed him how to submit the ballot electronically.

Afterward, the president made a quick sales pitch for early voting. “I just want everybody to see what an incredibly efficient process this was thanks to the outstanding folks who are at this particular polling place,” he told reporters. “Obviously folks in Illinois can take advantage of this. But all across the country we’re seeing a lot of early voting.”

Game, set, and match to Mitt Romney! Why? Well, it is a well known historical fact that no incumbent president who cast an early vote in his own election has ever gone on to be re-elected. This is just firm electoral precedent.

For more on firm electoral precedents, here is XKCD.

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation, and assurances from the Weather Channel that enough of the Eastern Seaboard will survive the coming "Frankenstorm" to allow "an election to occur" and for us to "keep having an America."

We return this week, to our very close-down-the-stretch election, and the unusual phenomenon of Romney remaining in good standing nationally, while Obama's electoral college firewall remaining mostly intact. Of course, those intact parts are really looking more and more like the bare-minimum needed to ensure election night success. Where once a mightly firewall stood, we see Nevada, Iowa, and Ohio being the strongest parts of that bulwark. And that's in order of strongest to weakest.

The state polls have performed with middling generosity to Obama this weekend, but we feel one of those states will naturally succumb to the overall national trends. Similarly, the polls in Virginia have had more to offer the incumbent, but word around the campfire is that Democratic turnout in high-volume blue vote places like Arlington, Fairfax, and Richmond is off 2008's trend. If so, that's good news for Romney. And we continue to just not like the look of Florida in general (though we might be somewhat swayed in our thinking by this week's episode of 30 ROCK).

Suffice it to say, we find the race to be bordering on wafer-thin. No one is safe! All may be doomed! (We are referring the coming terrible storm, here. Please, everyone, stay safe this weekend!)

electoral projection



Polls: Obama vs. Romney