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In Politics, Expect the Unexpected

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While the Republican National Convention played out as many expected, the Democratic get-together gave President Barack Obama a boost and seems to have convinced some voters that he deserves more time to work on the economy, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

I was on a panel at an event in the nation's capital Sept. 10. The subject was the elections, and another panelist and I discussed the race for the White House and the fight for control of Congress.

Toward the end of the event, someone in the audience asked about foreign policy. Does it matter in this election cycle? I was quick to reply. "No," I said confidently, noting that the elections are all about the economy. The other panelist generally agreed, adding that he thought it was unfortunate, but also true, that the candidates and most voters weren't paying attention to foreign policy issues.

Just a couple of days later, foreign policy became a major topic of discussion, both in the presidential race and for the media, after the killing of a U.S. ambassador in Libya, attacks on the U.S. embassy in Egypt and a mini-controversy regarding the reaction of GOP presidential nominee  Mitt Romney's campaign to the attacks.

Unforeseen events can always alter the trajectory of an election. That's what happened in the Middle East last week, with the ambassador's death and when the Israeli government signaled its preference in the U.S. presidential race. It happened, too, when the Federal Reserve announced another round of quantitative easing, which produced a noticeable surge in stocks.

Any single one of those events could have been enough to alter the political terrain of the 2012 presidential race. But in fact, the trajectory of the 2012 race may well have changed a week earlier, when, contrary to almost everyone's expectations, the Democratic National Convention altered the thinking of a small but important number of people about the nature of the 2012 presidential election.

I don't know any independent analyst or reporter who expected the party conventions to be decisive. Given the nation's polarization and after months of TV advertising in key states by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, it seemed unlikely that a few speeches would change sentiment enough to affect the race.

But while the GOP convention played to form - there was no bump, no remaking of the contest - the Democratic convention produced something significant.

What seems to have happened in Charlotte, N.C., is that Democrats sold the argument to an important slice of the electorate that four years isn't a true test of President Barack Obama's ability to turn around the country and that he deserves another term to finish the job.

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