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Is Charlie Black Right?

The television in my office is broken, which means that I can’t gauge the pundit insta-reaction to Charlie Black’s comments to Fortune magazine about a terrorist attack being a “big advantage” for John McCain. Frankly, I am probably a better analyst without television than with it, but that is a discussion for another day.

When Americans are thinking about of acts of terror, they naturally think back to 9/11. Although it’s hard to be absolutely sure, it would certainly seem that another 9/11-scale on America would (quite understandably) scare the living bejebus out of the electorate, and an electorate that has the living bejebus scared out of it will probably not be inclined to vote for a “change” candidate, especially one with limited national security experience.

But what if instead there were something more analogous to the bombing of the USS Cole: an attack on US interests on foreign soil? Or some kind of incident on domestic soil that goes off half-cocked? Say, for instance, a Muslim exchange student with vague connections to Al-Qaeda attempts to detonate a parking garage in Seattle, Washington. There is a complete failure of intelligence in envisioning the attack, but the bombs are poorly constructed and most do not detonate; five people are injured but none are killed. Or, there is some kind of incident at the Beijing Olympics comparable to the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta, but this time with more connection to international terrorist organizations? Or, a fairly serious incident on U.S. soil, but one perpetuated by a domestic terror group?

Attacks like these are more likely, perhaps by several orders of magnitude, than another 9/11. The electoral implications would depend heavily on the particular facts and circumstances, as well as the timing the incident and the reaction of the candidates.

It seems to me, however, that there is perhaps some margin where the attack is significant enough to represent a serious failure of the Bush Administration’s intelligence policy, but not serious enough to really scare people. If that is the case, the electoral implications are vaguer, and could possibly — possibly — even work against John McCain, particularly if the incident occurs at some point over the summer where there is still plenty of breathing space for each candidate to frame the narrative. In that eventuality, Black’s comments would surely be played on continuous loop, which might make things more difficult for his candidate.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.