A butterfly sows its oats — er, flaps its wings — in Cartagena, and an incumbent in Washington loses an election?
On it own, the story from Colombia about Secret Service agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia while on an advance trip preparing for President Obama’s recent visit there — a story that has broadened to include perhaps 20 people, including military personnel — is little more than a headache to a president. Quite obviously, he did not direct them to behave in such a way and does not approve of their actions.
But it may be a small example of the external, wholly unpredictable occurrences that cumulatively help to shape an election. As former British Prime Minister Harold McMillan is said to have responded when asked what worried him, it’s “Events, dear boy, events.”
I feel confident in predicting that one Secret Service scandal in Colombia, by itself, will not undermine Obama’s re-election chances. But consider that it comes at the same time as a controversy that does hit a little closer to home for the president: the current brouhaha about the expensive Las Vegas conference staged by employees of the General Services Administration. If that list grows, or if the known scandals grow much broader or deeper or seedier, at some point some voters may conclude their government isn’t being well-run. And that could only be bad news for an incumbent who promised competence in government, and who will be opposed by a managerial businessman-turned-politician in Mitt Romney.
Likewise, Obama can’t control what the Supreme Court decides about his signature health law. But a decision before the election, either way, will have some kind of effect on his success. The upcoming recall election for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, which likely will draw attention and resources from both the national Republican and Democratic parties, could either energize or deflate labor unions or tea partyers depending on how it goes. The Middle East could go from precarious to downright scary in a hurry, from Egypt’s elections to Syria’s civil war to a potential Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The recent opening salvo from the Taliban in Afghanistan reminds us that country, with thousands of our soldiers still in it, could blow up at any time.
Even more outside the president’s control, but with similar potential to change the course of the election, are a list of contingencies including: gas prices this summer and the broader U.S. economy; the European economy, and specifically the recent jitters about Spanish bonds; and even the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the potential for hard feelings (or more) whether Zimmerman is convicted or acquitted.
I’ve devoted most of this post to potential dangers for the Obama campaign, because I judge the risk from external events to be greatest for the incumbent. But these events could also turn out to hurt Romney’s chances, and it’s not hard to imagine news from left field that could hurt his candidacy — although, unlike the foregoing scenarios that we know to be possibilities, most of the anti-Romney scenarios require an imagination (e.g., some unknown scandal about him emerges, or his to-be-determined running mate embarrasses the campaign).
All of which is just something to keep in mind as we watch the general-election campaign begin. The early opinion polls, for instance, are mostly interesting if they run counter to existing narratives. But there’s a long time to go, and means many events — in and out of the candidates’ control — are yet to pass.
– By Kyle Wingfield