The economy was in "malaise," 52 Americans had been held hostage in Iran for nearly a year, and pundits on the eve of the 1980 election wondered if Jimmy Carter could pull off an "October surprise" -- gaining the hostages' freedom in the nick of time to save his presidency.
He couldn't. He floundered. In November, he lost.
Now, in 2004, a Bush-Kerry battle for the presidency is under way. The economy again is uncertain. Iraq is on edge. Osama bin Laden is on the run. And the war on terror continues.
Elections experts say any one of them could play the role Iran had in 1980, and be this year's X factor -- potentially spawning bombshell events that could jolt the election status quo, and maybe even bringing a decisive October surprise.
It is all part of presidential politics -- perhaps even more so now, in the first contest after 9/11.
"By definition, the unforeseen, the unpredictable makes the outcome of an election hard to know, especially when we are eight or nine months from Election Day," says David Greenberg, a Yale University assistant professor of history and political science and author of the recent book, Nixon's Shadow. "The things that tend to happen are the things that are hard to think about in advance."
Political scientists agree some of this year's potential land mines already are in view. But they don't always agree who is most likely to surge -- President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. -- if terrorists attack, if bin Laden is caught, or if Iraq or North Korea suddenly unravels.
Some families who lost relatives in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks voiced outrage Thursday at President Bush's first ads of his re-election campaign that use images of the devastated World Trade Center to portray him as the right leader for tumultuous times.
On ABCNEWS' Good Morning America, Bush adviser Karen Hughes defended the four commercials -- which are being run in at least 16 important battleground states -- as "tastefully done."
"Sept. 11 is not some distant event in the past," Hughes said. "All of us feel deeply that tragedy but it's also important to recognize the impact it had on our national public policy."
Rally Round the Flag
Conventional wisdom says a foreign crisis plays into the hands of a sitting president. In emergencies, people look to their leaders for reassurance, and presidents get to react in a presidential fashion.
Nelson W. Polsby, co-author of Presidential Elections: Strategies and Structures of American Politics, now in its 11th edition, and a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says it's happened so many times, analysts even have given the phenomenon a special name. And President Bush's fluctuating approval rating could be exhibit A.
"Bush's popularity has mostly been a phenomenon public opinion experts call 'rally round the flag,' " Polsby says. "9/11 got George Bush about 40 [approval rating percentage] points. The invasion of Iraq got him about 15 points, and the finding of Saddam Hussein got him about seven or eight points.
"After the rally round the flag, it's subject to decay at varying rates," Polsby adds. "So my conclusion to that is fairly straightforward -- that if there is another event of that type, you have to assume it will benefit President Bush."
While most political scientists subscribe to the rally-round-the-flag idea, some wonder if it will be quite so straightforward this time, as Bush confronts Kerry -- a war hero and senator with a lengthy foreign policy resume -- and potential negative momentum on Iraq.
"Because Iraq has now been identified as a problem spot, Bush is less likely to gain sympathy or the benefit of the doubt should things go horribly wrong," says Greenberg, who generally backs the rally-round-the-flag scenario. "With 9/11, nobody saw it coming."
Morris P. Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., thinks that rather than boosting Bush's public esteem, another major terrorist attack on a U.S. target "could be the kiss of death" for the president.
"I don't think there would be any automatic rally-around-the-flag effect in the event of another domestic terror attack" or an attack on a U.S. target overseas, says Fiorina, who has written about the impact of electoral forces. "The Democrats could say the administration wasted billions of dollars and hundreds of American lives in Iraq while Osama bin Laden ran loose."
An attack on a non-U.S. target, such as a foreign ally, could be a different story, Fiorina believes: "You revive the real danger [of terrorism in voters' minds] without suffering the cost ourselves."
However, Polsby and others say Americans likely would rally around Bush after another terror attack.
Dennis W. Johnson, associate dean at the graduate school of political management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a former Democratic political consultant, believes Bush would surge initially after a terror attack, but could face a backlash within weeks or months, depending upon the circumstances.
"If it's perceived that this is something that we should figure out, or it seems our homeland security people should have figured out, then of course it goes against the president," Johnson says.
As with terrorism, Fiorina believes the less Iraq is in the news, the better things will be for Bush.
"I think there are worse and better scenarios, but there is little that gives you any positive" politically for Bush, Fiorina says.
Johnson says Iraq could play strongly for Bush if weapons of mass destruction finally are found -- or more modestly if there is a peaceful handover to Iraqi authorities.
Chaos in Iraq, or a major battlefield tragedy with large loss of American life, could do serious damage, he says.
"If it turns to chaos, you're going to start asking yourself, 'Well, why were we there in the first place?' " Johnson says. "If you see that in June -- the handing over from [America's civil administrator] Paul Bremer to the provisional council or whatever -- and you see the next month the entire country is aflame … that's not how you want to exit."
Johnson believes Bush could face even more political risk if U.S. forces get caught in a severe flare-up between North and South Korea.
People might think, "Here he is playing the cowboy as diplomat, he's talking tough, and look what has happened," Johnson says.
Osama Bin Laden
While experts disagree on who ultimately gains politically in the event of a terror attack or foreign crisis, they agree Bush gets a big boost if America or its allies catch the master terrorist himself -- Osama bin Laden. But again, timing might be key.
"People in our line of work are joking that they probably have bin Laden now, [that] they're keeping him in the basement of the White House, [and] they're going to spring him on Oct. 15," Polsby says -- adding that while his colleagues don't really believe the joke is true, it reflects what may be the best timing for Bush.
"You wouldn't want to capture him too soon," Fiorina says. "You'd want it to happen a little closer to the election, say late summer or fall."
But even if news of bin Laden's capture comes early in the campaign, Johnson sees a potential wild card that could stretch out good news for Bush -- the Bush-Cheney campaign's coffers, which dwarf the money raised so far by Kerry and the Democrats.
"Let's say for instance [bin Laden]'s caught tomorrow and we have a hoopla for about two weeks, and then people start to forget about it," Johnson says. If you're Bush, "you don't let people forget about it."
It might not pay to discount even older news.
"We're going to be reminded in those $150 million of TV ads that are coming down the pike … that the people of Iraq were rescued from a dictator who's in custody," Johnson says.
However, some wonder if the public's perception of the economy and jobs could yet trump all foreign news.
"If bin Laden is captured next Tuesday, it's a big boost for Bush, but by November it could be meaningless; if he is captured in October it could be big for Bush," Greenberg says. "But if he is captured in October and the economy is bad, who knows?"
Few predict sudden transformative events stemming from the economy, but rather powerful momentum for one candidate or the other leading up to Election Day. The perception of an improving economy benefits Bush, and negative news or stagnation helps Kerry.
"It's a corrosive, gradual issue more than an explosive one," Johnson says. "You have people who have the nagging feeling that they're going to be the next one laid off."