Naturally, with Obama cantering to a modest leads in the polls now, with very strong fundamentals presaging a comfortable win, the conventional wisdom is very clear on what each candidate needs to do.
Obama's campaign is focused on getting back to local issues, town-hall meetings, while simultaneously organizing, registering and getting voters to the polls.
McCain seems to have a more uphill road - go populist and co-opt Obama's message, go negative and tear down Barack as a contradictory effete idealist and a radical ideologue, while striking a clear distinction with himself as a pragmatic populist.
The game could very will swing on the practical strategy and execution of each team, against a backdrop of electorate seeking change from Bush.
Or maybe not. Read on if you don't mind going a bit tin-foily once in a while.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks describes a "Black Swan" as an unforeseen (even unforceaable) event whose impact is huge though its likelihood small. Taleb contends that history is increasingly driven by Black Swans, and not gradual predictable events that follow a narrative. Instead, events come out of the blue and are later rationalized through narrative as belonging to the realm of the ordinary.
The Swift-boat ads were a Black Swan for Kerry supporters - which of us would have predicted a successful attack on the patriotism and valor of a decorated Marine and long-term Senator? In my mind, Senator Obama a great magnificent Black Swan all by himself. I recently collected $20 on a 2007 bet with a colleague that Obama would be first or second in the Presidential primaries; neither of us could seriously contemplate betting on whether he'd beat Clinton.
Maybe all we need is control over the little squiggles in the daily polls from now to November. Or maybe the election will be decided by that one huge bump that could completely upend all the carefully laid plans of men and mice ... These are not events wished for, planned for or quite foreseen, but those that would make any planning irrelevant by merely happening.
What are some events that could change the nature of the Presidential race this year? And will they help or hurt Barack Obama?
Here is my list -- being an Obama supporter, perhaps I'm disproportionately obsessive about negative impacts.
Let's start with two unexpected events that were speculated on in last election cycle as well:
- Bin Laden Captured or Killed: I don't know what the headlines will be -- "Bush Finds Osama" or "McCain Finds Bush". But I expect the Senator McBush to claim credit for the strategy of reliance on NATO and Pakistan. Even though this would seem not to contradict Obama's position, we can't expect much else from the MSM which would become reliant on daily dribbles from the administration for its news cycle. As Andrea Mitchell will no doubt ask, "Senator Obama, will you admit you were wrong about the need for the surge in Iraq and the need for more troops in Afghanistan?
- Terrorist Attack on American Soil: Sane people would see an attack as proof that Bush has done nothing to keep us safe from terrorism. On the other hand, the psychic demand for macho father-figures like the clown Guiliani seems to hit a peak after such incidents. Loads of Bush on TV, an uptick in his popularity and calls for revenge.
- The Wright Book: There has been some speculationabout the upcoming book that the good Reverend mentioned at the National Press Club speech earlier this year. What better timing for publication than a month before the elections? The book would not have to even mention Barack Obama for the endless loop of sound-bytes to start drowning out every positive message put out by the Obama campaign, sending his numbers a-sliding. A publisher's wet dream balanced precariously against the slender hope that the Reverend is not a complete ass.
- Israel Bombs Iran: Pronouncements of imminence have already been made by prominent Israel watchers -- whether these are idle threats or early warnings is a matter of debate. However, if Israel does launch a conventional (or, heaven forbid, nuclear) attack, then we could expect an Iranian response against shipping in the Gulf and against U.S. troops in Iraq. If that happens, forget any timetable for withdrawal from Iraq -- the debate will be over whether we need to nuke Iran or simply obliterate them with conventional weapons. Neither is a winning position for a Democratic candidate favoring troop withdrawal.
- Financial Meltdown: While there are huge clouds on the horizon with occasional thunder, there is very low risk of any behemoth institution -- Freddie, Fannie, Citi, Goldman, the U.S. Government -- going bust over the next few weeks, right? And surely the Fed will ride to the rescue, right? But a systemic collapse that would take down a whole bunch of them, with the Fed completely incapable of doing much? A number of events could trigger such a run -- a sudden plunge in home values, a systemic bust of U.S. Banks rising foreclosures, a Chinese or Japanese decision to not finance the farce ... The implications for the race are not clear -- the ensuing tragedy will make the Presidential race look a sideshow.
- Obama Assassination Attempt: Devastating and distasteful to contemplate. But I cannot be oblivious to the dreadful feeling that Barack Obama was indeed too good to last.
- McCain's Health: John McCain has had his share of health and physical challenges in past, though he is vigorous enough to have walked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. is at the age where his health is a big concern to voters. I don't think he has released detailed health records in this cycle. But any sudden changes on that front would again make the race one-sided.
Final word: Please don't confuse my detailing these events with any callous wish on my part for them to happen. Each is a tragedy I wouldn't wish upon anyone. Either you worry about such things or you don't ...
Updated: What is the point of it all -- William Shipley's comment below that it isn't safe to play it safe is an excellent recap of the primary lesson that Taleb recommends from studying the history of unpredictability. That preparedness and nimbleness are as important as planning and prognostication. In other words, Obama should plan to have to turn on a dime, not knowing where to or when.