Forget the October surprise. The unpredictable, vote-swinging shock to electoral politics that materializes every presidential campaign could take place just four days before the election — when the October jobs report is released on November 2.
The fluctuations in the wavering national employment market have already come to dominate the race for president, dealing President Barack Obama's reelection effort a serious blow this week. The key figure comes in a monthly report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — which estimates how many jobs were created in the prior month, as well as the unemployment rate. And the first Friday of each month has become primetime for political posturing, with various campaigns, candidates, and surrogates jockeying to spin the numbers in their favor.
But the October 2012 report, which will come out the Friday before Election Day, could drive the national conversation in the final days of the campaign — and make up the minds of crucial, undecided swing voters. In both 2004 and 2008, exit polls indicated that about 10 percent of the electorate decided on a candidate in the last week of the campaign. A lackluster October report, like the one that came out last Friday, could be the winning data point in Mitt Romney's campaign to discredit President Obama's economic policies. Alternatively, better-than-expected numbers could convince fence-sitting voters to stay the course.
Tony Fratto, the former Bush administration Treasury Department and White House spokesman, sees the final pre-election jobs reports as potentially being decisive this year.
"I think marginally attached voters, ones not paying a lot of attention right now, will begin to make up their minds in that convention/post-convention period," said Fratto, now a managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies, who also said the previous two reports would set the crucial narrative. "And if they're basing their votes on economic conditions, then those two jobs reports could be decisive."
The September report could be particularly pivotal for Obama, because it will be released the day after he accepts his party's nomination at the Democratic National Convention.
"In fact, when President Obama speaks on the night of September 6, he will already know the jobs number," Fratto added.
Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, said the impact of the November 2 report will depend, like so much of politics, on the voters' and economists' expectations.
"It all depends on what happens in the months running up to the last report, and whether the report is different from the trend in that runup," said Goolsbee.
The centrality of the jobs reports has already bred conspiracy theories in some circles, with Herman Cain charging earlier this year that Obama had ordered the Bureau of Labor Statistics to manipulate the numbers. Some Republicans speculate that the administration will find a way to tinker with that last, crucial report.
On the flip side, one Republican operative mused that defense contractors and others with a financial stake in the outcome of the election could announce layoffs over the summer in a bid to affect the results in November.
But Fratto dismissed the possibility that anyone could manipulate the number. "There's no way for any Administration to game the numbers — those conspiracy theories, to me, are silly," he said.
Neither campaign was willing to comment on the stakes of the November 2 report specifically, but Obama strategists have long said that they're working to build a ground game strong enough to counteract outside forces that are out of their hands — like the October employment estimates.
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign indicated that whatever appears in that last jobs report, it will deal with it the way it's dealt with every other report since the campaign began: If the numbers are bad, blame Obama's failed policies, and if they're improving, say it's happening too slowly.
Asked whether the campaign was planning for various November 2 scenarios, a senior Romney adviser told BuzzFeed, "I can't predict the future. I can only go on known facts, and the facts are not good for those of us urgently looking for some improvement in the economy... President Obama's policies have simply failed to move this economy."