In U.S. political jargon, an October surprise is a news event that may influence the outcome of an upcoming November election (particularly one for the U.S. presidency), whether deliberately planned or spontaneously occurring. Because the date for national elections (as well as many state and local elections) is in early November, events that take place in October have greater potential to influence the decisions of prospective voters; thus, relatively last-minute news stories could either change the course of an election or reinforce the inevitable. The term "October surprise" was coined by William Casey when he served as campaign manager of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. However, there were October election-upending events that predated the coining of the term.
Prior to 1980
In mid-October 1840, shortly before the 1840 presidential election, federal prosecutors announced plans to charge top Whig Party officials with "most stupendous and atrocious fraud" for paying Pennsylvanians to cross state lines and vote for Whig candidates in New York during the 1838 elections.
On October 20, 1880, shortly before the 1880 presidential election, a forged letter was published purportedly written by James A. Garfield voicing support for Chinese immigration to the United States. At the time, most white Americans opposed Chinese immigration and both presidential candidates were in favor of immigration restrictions.
In the week leading up to the 1884 presidential election, Republican nominee James G. Blaine attended a meeting in which Presbyterian preacher Samuel D. Burchard claimed that the Democrats were the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion". Blaine's failure to object to Burchard's message cost him support from anti-prohibitionists, Roman Catholic immigrants, and southerners.
In the weeks leading up to the 1920 presidential election, rumors circulated that Warren G. Harding was of African-American descent. Harding's campaign feared that the rumor would affect his popularity amongst white southerners and so his campaign made it a point to prove Harding's whiteness.
Less than a month before the 1940 presidential election, President Roosevelt's press secretary Stephen Early kneed a black police officer in the groin outside Madison Square Garden. Roosevelt had already been facing skepticism from black voters because of his failure to desegregate the military. Roosevelt responded days before the election by appointing the nation's first black general, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and announcing the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen.
On October 7, 1964, just under a month before the 1964 presidential election, one of President Johnson's top aides, Walter Jenkins, was arrested for disorderly conduct with another man at the Washington D.C. YMCA, a place described by the Toledo Blaze as "so notorious a gathering place of homosexuals that the District police had long since staked it out with peepholes for surveillance." However, a week later, Nikita Khrushchev was ousted from power by hardliners in the Soviet Union, the Labour Party won the United Kingdom election and China conducted its first nuclear weapons test.
During the 1968 presidential election, Hubert Humphrey—who was rising sharply in the polls due to the collapse of the Wallace vote—began to distance himself publicly from the Johnson administration on the Vietnam War, calling for a bombing halt. The key turning point for Humphrey's campaign came when President Johnson officially announced a bombing halt, and even a possible peace deal, the weekend before the election. The "Halloween Peace" gave Humphrey's campaign a badly needed boost. In addition, Senator Eugene McCarthy finally endorsed Humphrey in late October after previously refusing to do so, and by election day the polls were reporting a dead heat.
During the 1972 presidential election between Republican incumbent Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern, the United States was in the fourth year of negotiations to end the lengthy and domestically divisive Vietnam War.
On October 26, 1972, twelve days before the election on November 7, the United States' chief negotiator and presidential National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger appeared at a press conference held at the White House and announced "We believe that peace is at hand." Nixon, despite having vowed to end the war during his presidential election campaign four years earlier, had failed to cease hostilities but had withdrawn all American ground combat units and most other American military personnel.
While Nixon was nevertheless already widely considered to be assured of re-election, Kissinger's "peace is at hand" declaration increased Nixon's already high standing with the electorate: in the event, Nixon defeated McGovern in every state except Massachusetts and won by 23.2 points in the nationwide popular vote, which was the largest margin since 1936. Remaining U.S. military personnel were withdrawn in 1973, but U.S. involvement in Vietnam continued until 1975.
1980: Carter vs. Reagan
In the 1980 presidential election, Republican challenger Ronald Reagan feared that a last-minute deal to release American hostages held in Iran might earn incumbent Jimmy Carter enough votes to win re-election. As it happened, in the days prior to the election, press coverage was consumed with the Iranian government's decision—and Carter's simultaneous announcement—that the hostages would not be released until after the election.
It was first written about in a Jack Anderson article in The Washington Post in the fall of 1980, in which he alleged that the Carter administration was preparing a major military operation in Iran for rescuing U.S. hostages in order to help him get re-elected. Subsequent allegations surfaced against Reagan alleging that his team had impeded the hostage release to negate the potential boost to the Carter campaign.
After the release of the hostages on January 20, 1981, minutes after Reagan's inauguration, some charged that the Reagan campaign had made a secret deal with the Iranian government whereby the Iranians would hold the hostages until after Reagan was elected and inaugurated.
Gary Sick, member of the National Security council under Presidents Ford and Carter (before being relieved of his duties weeks into Reagan's term) made the accusation in a New York Times editorial in the run-up to the 1992 election. The initial bipartisan response from Congress was skeptical: House Democrats refused to authorize an inquiry, and Senate Republicans denied a $600,000 appropriation for a probe.
Eight former hostages also sent an open letter demanding an inquiry in 1991. In subsequent Congressional testimony, Sick said that the popular media had distorted and misrepresented the accusers, reducing them to "gross generalizations" and "generic conspiracy theorists". Sick penned a book on the subject and sold the movie rights to it for a reported $300,000. His sources and thesis were contested by a number of commentators on both sides of the aisle.
Abolhassan Banisadr, the former President of Iran, has also stated "that the Reagan campaign struck a deal with Tehran to delay the release of the hostages in 1980", asserting that "by the month before the American Presidential election in November 1980, many in Iran's ruling circles were openly discussing the fact that a deal had been made between the Reagan campaign team and some Iranian religious leaders in which the hostages' release would be delayed until after the election so as to prevent President Carter's re-election." He repeated the charge in My Turn to Speak: Iran, the Revolution & Secret Deals with the U.S.
Two separate congressional investigations looked into the charges, both concluding that there was no plan to seek to delay the hostages' release.
In a memoir by Joseph V. Reed Jr. it is revealed that the "team" around David Rockefeller "collaborated closely with the Reagan campaign in its efforts to pre-empt and discourage what it derisively labeled an 'October surprise'—a pre-election release of the American hostages, the papers show. The Chase team helped the Reagan campaign gather and spread rumors about possible payoffs to win the release, a propaganda effort that Carter administration officials have said impeded talks to free the captives."
1992: Bush vs. Clinton
In June 1992, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was indicted in the Iran–Contra affair. Though he claims to have been opposed to the sale on principle, Weinberger participated in the transfer of United States TOW missiles to Iran that were used to stop Saddam Hussein's massive tank army, and was later indicted on several felony charges of lying to the Iran-Contra independent counsel during its investigation. Republicans angrily accused Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh of timing Weinberger's indictment to hurt George H. W. Bush's re-election chances. Throughout the campaign as Weinberger's trial approached, more concrete information on Bush's direct role emerged, including statements by Reagan Middle East specialist Howard Teicher that Bush knew of the arms deal in spring 1986 and an Israeli memo that made it clear that Bush was well versed in the deal by July 1986.
2000: Gore vs. Bush
Days before the November 7 election, Thomas J. Connolly of Scarborough, Maine, a prominent defense attorney and 1998 Democratic candidate for governor, confirmed to a reporter that Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in that state in 1976. Bush confirmed the report in a press conference moments after it was revealed.
2003 California governor recall election
On October 2, 2003, the Los Angeles Times released a story about Arnold Schwarzenegger and subsequent allegations that he was a womanizer guilty of multiple acts of sexual misconduct in past decades. The story was released just before the 2003 California recall (which was scheduled for October 7), prompting many pundits to charge that the timing of the story was aimed specifically at derailing the recall campaign. It was not the only embarrassing story about Schwarzenegger to surface just days before the campaign: the next day, ABC News and The New York Times reported that in 1975 Schwarzenegger had praised Adolf Hitler during interviews for the film Pumping Iron, which was responsible for the bodybuilder-turned-actor's fame. The twin controversies later led Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez to coin the term "gropenfuhrer" to describe California's governor-elect (a compounded pun on the Nazi paramilitary rank Gruppenführer and the words to grope and Führer); a series of Doonesbury strips made the term famous.
2004: Bush vs. Kerry
On October 27, The New York Times reported the disappearance of a huge cache of explosives from a warehouse in al Qa'qaa (see Missing explosives in Iraq). The John Kerry campaign blamed the Bush administration for this supposed mismanagement; administration officials charged that the Times had gotten the story wrong, and that the explosives had been cleared from the storage facility before the looting was supposed to have taken place.
On October 29, the Arabic news agency Al Jazeera aired a video of Osama bin Laden. In a speech that justified and took responsibility for the actions of September 11, bin Laden called out the Bush administration and the American position in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. "Your security does not lie in the hands of Kerry, Bush, or al-Qaeda," bin Laden claimed; "Your security is in your own hands." This is believed to have helped President Bush's campaign as it thrust the War on Terror back into the public eye. There is debate as to whether bin Laden was aware of the effect the video would have on the elections; the "Bush bounce" from the video did not surprise most outside observers of the 2004 election.
It has been claimed that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud cut the price of oil (thus reducing gas prices) to help ensure a Bush victory. According to a 60 Minutes broadcast, "Prince Bandar enjoys easy access to the Oval Office. His family and the Bush family are close. And Woodward told us that Bandar has promised the president that Saudi Arabia will lower oil prices in the months before the election to ensure the U.S. economy is strong on Election Day."
2006 midterm elections
Two studies by The Lancet on mortality in Iraq before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq have been described as October surprises for the 2004 and 2006 elections. Les Roberts acknowledged that the 2004 study was timed to appear just before the presidential election, though he denied that it was meant to favor one candidate over another. Although the studies used standard epidemiological methods, was peer reviewed and supported by a majority of statisticians and epidemiologists, political critics have dismissed the studies based on a variety of alleged shortcomings.
The Mark Foley scandal, in which the congressman resigned over sexual computer messages that he exchanged with underage congressional pages, broke on September 28, 2006, and dominated the news in early October. Bloomberg.com wrote, "The October surprise came early this election year...." Allegations that both Republicans and Democrats had knowledge of Foley's actions months before the breaking of the story only fueled the speculation regarding the possibly politically motivated timing of the story's release.
News that the Saddam Hussein trial verdict would be rendered on November 5, 2006, just two days ahead of the U.S. midterm elections, led Tom Engelhardt of magazine The Nation to dub it, on October 17, the "November Surprise". In a White House Press gaggle on November 4, 2006, a reporter suggested that the timing of the verdict might be an attempt to influence the outcome of the November election, to which White House Press Secretary Tony Snow replied "Are you smoking rope?" Snow later told CNN's Late Edition, "The idea is preposterous, that somehow we've been scheming and plotting with the Iraqis".
2008: McCain vs. Obama
On October 31, 2008, four days before the 2008 presidential election, the Associated Press reported that Zeituni Onyango, half-aunt of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, was living as an illegal immigrant in Boston. She had been denied asylum and ordered to leave the United States in 2004. Some have also described the October 2008 record rise in unemployment as an "October Surprise".
2012: Obama vs. Romney
Hurricane Sandy was labeled the October surprise by some in the media.Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had been a staunch critic of President Barack Obama, was seen praising the response of the Obama administration.
2014 midterm elections
2016: Clinton vs. Trump
On October 7, a recording from 2005 was released in which Republican Party nominee Donald Trump, using explicit language, claimed "when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything". Several politicians from both major parties expressed their disapproval of these remarks. Trump, who had been accused of sexism on several occasions before, later apologized for these remarks, saying they "don't reflect who I am". But the remarks led to many Republicans withdrawing their endorsement from Trump including Arizona Senator John McCain, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, and Carly Fiorina. Many others who had not previously endorsed him asked him to step aside as the Republican nominee, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The same day, WikiLeaks began a two-month campaign of releasing emails and excerpts from the account of John Podesta. They would later become known as the Podesta Leaks. They shed a negative light on Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and included recordings of excerpts of speeches given by Clinton to a variety of banks, a debate question being leaked to Clinton prior to the debate, a stance on trade-deals different from those purported by Clinton during her campaign, along with her belief that it is beneficial to hold both public and private beliefs.
Also on the same day, U.S. intelligence agencies publicly accused the Russian government of using computer hacking to interfere with the election process.
Three weeks later, on October 28, then-FBI Director James Comey announced in a letter to Congress that he would take "appropriate investigative steps" to review additional emails related to Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. This was announced after newly discovered emails were found on a computer that was seized by the FBI during an investigation of former congressman Anthony Weiner who had been accused of sending explicit pictures to a minor. According to law enforcement officials, the emails were found on a computer used by both Weiner and his then-wife, top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Several hours later, Hillary Clinton responded to the decision of the Director by calling on the FBI to be fully transparent and to release "full and complete facts" on what the emails contained. On October 30, it was reported that 650,000 emails on Weiner's computer were to be investigated, potentially being relevant to this particular and other cases.
2018 midterm elections
A caravan of migrants from Central America became the "October surprise" of 2018. President Trump tweeted information about the caravan, and later released a Republican television advertisement that many criticized as racist (Fox News, NBC, and Facebook removed the advertisement after they considered it racist and CNN refused to air it). The story dominated discussion on many news networks, with many pundits criticizing Trump. News host Shepard Smith said on his Fox News show that the migrant caravan "hysteria" was actually intended to stoke fear before the midterm election and ridiculed Trump's claims.
2020: Trump vs. Biden
The 2020 October Surprises started off with the New York Times publishing an investigation into President Trump's taxes which reported that the President only paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017. The article went on to state that the President is currently over 400 million dollars in debt. On October 16, Forbes published an article stating that the indebted amount is actually a sum of over 1 Billion dollars.
On October 2, Donald Trump announced that he and Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. This was considered by many to be an October surprise, with The Christian Science Monitor describing it as "perhaps the most jarring October surprise in history". This positive diagnosis was a part of a larger outbreak that occurred in the White House in October 2020, and has been traced back to the fast-tracked ceremony to announce Amy Coney Barrett as the successor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Supreme Court seat. The event has been described by top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci as a "super spreader" event which has reportedly infected over 30 people including senior White House officials.
On October 13, a probe by US Attorney General William Barr into an Obama-era unmasking request of US civilian names found within National Security Agency foreign Intelligence reports relating to members of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign quietly concluded with no findings of wrongdoing. President Trump has claimed that this unmasking request was an act of espionage since the beginning of his presidency and has been emphatically hyping the probe as an "October Surprise" for the 2020 election. It was also revealed that unmasking requests have significantly increased under the Trump presidency according to statistical transparency reports by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
- Opposition research
- Wag the Dog, a novel and film describing a fictional war started solely to distract attention from a presidential scandal
- Canadian Bacon, another film about a fictional war to distract attention from a presidential scandal
- Zinoviev letter
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The term "October surprise" is most famously associated with the 1980 campaign, when Republicans spent the fall worrying that Jimmy Carter would engineer a last-minute deal to free the American hostages who had been held in Iran since the previous year. Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a close race, but an awful economy and flagging national confidence made the president supremely vulnerable.
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