The Midterm Election of '62: A Real 'October Surprise'

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This year’s
midterm election has been compared to a number of others. But few
political observers have brought up the election of 1962, whose
outcome should serve as a cautionary tale as the 2010 campaign winds
down.

That election
nearly a half century ago was redefined in its closing weeks by
one of the greatest and most dangerous international crises in American
history. At issue, the introduction of Soviet missiles into Cuba
capable of launching a nuclear attack on the American mainland.
That, in turn, could have produced a full-scale nuclear war between
the United States and the Soviet Union.

The crisis
itself covered much of the latter half of October 1962 and froze
the midterm campaign in its tracks as the world’s two superpowers
stood eyeball to eyeball. It was the ultimate test of strength and
judgment for the young president, John F. Kennedy. And he passed
it.

The Soviets
backed down. The president’s popularity soared. And his Democratic
colleagues in Congress, many of whom were bracing for significant
midterm election losses, saw their numbers stay virtually unchanged
on Election Day. The Democrats lost only four seats in the House,
while gaining a handful of seats in the Senate – a far cry
from the heavy losses that the president’s party has usually
sustained in midterm elections.

The outcome
of the Cuban missile crisis and the election that followed increased
Kennedy’s stature on both the national and international stage.
It also served as an important lesson for generations to come. Namely,
that an election is not over until the voting takes place.

Even the most
expert prognostications are a snapshot of an election at a particular
point in time, and must be taken as such. They can be affected –
even sharply altered – by major events that occur suddenly
in the final weeks of a campaign, with the Cuban missile crisis
representing the ultimate “October surprise.”

Cuba had actually
been on the political radar screen throughout the 1962 campaign.
Just 90 miles off the southern coast of Florida, it had a newly
minted Communist government headed by its revolutionary leader,
Fidel Castro. By the early fall, Cuba had already become a flash
point in East-West relations. The Soviets had begun sending technicians
and weaponry to Cuba for what they claimed was the island’s
defense against a possible U.S. attempt to topple the Castro regime.

But the situation
did not reach crisis proportions until mid-October, when U.S. reconnaissance
found evidence of sites being rapidly constructed in Cuba where
Soviet missiles could be launched to strike the American mainland.

Within hours
of receiving notice of this new Soviet threat, Kennedy convened
the first of many top secret meetings of a group that became known
as “ExComm.” The group, which was to monitor the crisis
and recommend an appropriate response, ranged upward in size to
about 20 members. Members included President Kennedy and Vice President
Lyndon Johnson, military and national security experts, foreign
policy hands, a White House adviser or two, and a few Cabinet members,
among them the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert
Kennedy.

During this
first stage of the crisis, the accent was on secrecy, and the president
maintained his schedule of campaign events to maintain an aura of
normalcy. Meanwhile, the ExComm narrowed the options for the president
to consider down to two. One option was a naval blockade of Cuba,
popularly known as a “quarantine” to avoid hawkish overtones.
A second option was far more aggressive, an air strike followed
by an invasion of the island.

The latter
approach was viewed most favorably by the military as well as Republican
critics who complained Kennedy was “soft on Cuba.” But
the president opted for the milder quarantine option, which he felt
gave both the Americans and the Soviets more time to reach a peaceful
solution.

On Monday night,
October 22, the crisis entered a second, more public phase when
Kennedy delivered a nationally televised address explaining the
severe gravity of the situation and the quarantine option that he
was adopting. “That televised address … was not the best
speech of JFK’s presidency,” wrote White House adviser
Ted Sorensen, “but it surely was his most important. It fully
informed the American people and the world of what appeared to be
the greatest danger to our country in history.”

The days that
followed were full of tension as the world waited to see what would
happen next. Back-channel communications between the White House
and the Kremlin proceeded. But it was not until the following Sunday,
October 28, that it became clear that the Soviets would not try
to breach the American quarantine and would agree to remove its
existing missiles from Cuba.

In the court
of American public opinion, Kennedy emerged a clear winner. His
approval rating in the first Gallup Poll taken after the crisis
was 74% – a jump of 13 percentage points from where it had
stood previously. And his increased stature worked to the benefit
of his fellow Democrats.

The Republicans
had their successes in November, particularly in the gubernatorial
contests. They elected George Romney in Michigan, William Scranton
in Pennsylvania, and reelected Nelson Rockefeller in New York. All
three would run for the GOP presidential nomination in the course
of the 1960s, although none of them would win it.

But the Democrats
arguably did even better in 1962. They elected a new cadre of liberal
senators, including Birch Bayh of Indiana, George McGovern of South
Dakota and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, as well as the president’s
younger brother, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who had just turned
30 earlier that year.

Some strong
critics of the Kennedy administration were also defeated, including
Sen. Homer Capehart of Indiana, Rep. Walter Judd of Minnesota (who
was the keynote speaker at the 1960 Republican convention), plus
the GOP’s presidential nominee that year, Richard Nixon, who
lost a comeback bid for governor of California.

Yet just as
important, Kennedy came out of the 1962 election with a degree of
momentum that he did not have two years earlier, when he narrowly
won the White House while Democrats lost roughly 20 House seats.
“Democrats have scored a remarkable midterm election success,”
wrote Tom Wicker in the New York Times. “The outcome
… demonstrated support for President Kennedy’s Cuban policies
and warded off a Republican threat to his legislative strength …
The President emerged with greater prestige – and political
strength.”

And to Wicker
and many of his colleagues, none of this had been foreseen a month
earlier.

Chart 1.
House Gains or Small Losses By President’s Party a Rarity in
Midterm Elections of Last Century

More than two
dozen midterm elections have been held over the last century. In
only three has the president’s party gained House seats and
in only three others have their House losses numbered eight or less.
That includes President John F. Kennedy’s only midterm election,
in 1962, which was colored by the Cuban missile crisis in late October.

Source: Vital
Statistics on Congress 2008 (Brookings Institution Press).

Chart 2.
Largest One-Time Increases in Presidential Approval Ratings Since
1960

Over the last
half century, abrupt increases in a president’s approval rating
have almost invariably been due to an event that creates a “rally
round the flag” sentiment. Such events have included military
threats to the country – including the Cuban missile crisis
(1962) and the 9/11 terrorist attacks (2001) – the onset of
the Iranian hostage crisis (1979), and the launching of military
action overseas, as in the case of the two wars against Iraq (1991
and 2003). Following is a list of presidential approval rating increases
of at least 13 percentage points in back-to-back Gallup polls since
1960.

Source: Gallup
Poll.

Reprinted
with permission from Sabato’s
Crystal Ball
, Center
for Politics
.

October
1, 2010

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