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An October Surprise?

One of the planes suspected of carrying a suspicious package

Media reports that several suspicious packages were plucked from cargo planes today puts terrorism -- or at least potential terrorism -- on the front burner but is likely to have only a marginal effect on the political landscape with four days remaining before the Nov. 2 election.

The story has dominated cable news all day and almost certainly will be a lead item on the evening news, a front-page story in every major newspaper and a central point of chatter in the blogosphere.

That means that terror issues will be more on the minds of voters tomorrow than anyone assumed when today began. And, anything that captures national attention this close to an election is worth noting and fits neatly into the idea of an "October Surprise", a last-minute event that changes the course of an election.

With that said, there's little evidence that terrorism will become a voting issue for a public heavily focused on the economy and other domestic concerns.

A slew of polling released in recent weeks shows that terrorism barely registers when people are asked about the most pressing problem facing the country or the most important issue that people want the government to address.

Those naming terrorism as a major concern/problem is usually somewhere between one and three percent in most national polls; it has fallen so far off the list of major issues that neither the latest New York Times/CBS poll nor the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey asked a single question about terrorism.

And, even if terrorism was suddenly to become a pressing issue on the minds of the American public, it's difficult to accurately assess which party it would help.

On the one hand, all presidents are at their strongest when serving as commander-in-chief. Obama's remarks this afternoon about the incidents oozed confidence and calmness -- exactly what people want from a leader in these moments.

Since the election is in no small part a referendum on the President and the policies he has put in place, any gains he makes in how the public views him could well aid Democrats at the margins.

On the other hand, Republicans still retain a slight advantage in voters' mind when it comes to the question of which party is better able to deal with terrorism issues. In a late September Newsweek poll, 40 percent of respondents said they trusted Republicans to handle terrorism issues while 34 percent chose Democrats; that is a considerable narrowing from an October 2002 poll when Republicans had a 23-point edge on the question.

Terrorism or the threat of it, then, is rightly understood as a political muddle -- making prognostication of what an event like this means almost impossible.

For the better part of the last 18 months, it's been clear that the central theme of the election would be the economy and how a Democratic-controlled Washington handled it. While the suspicious package story will certainly take the focus off of the economy for a day, it doesn't look likely to fundamentally re-orient the election in a meaningful way.

By Chris Cillizza  | October 29, 2010; 5:19 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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