In American political jargon, an October surprise is a news event deliberately created to influence the outcome of an election, particularly one for the U.S. presidency. The reference to the month of October is because the date for national elections (as well as many state and local elections) occurs between November 2 and 8, and therefore events that take place in late October have greater potential to influence the decisions of prospective voters.
The term came into use shortly after the 1972 presidential election between Republican incumbent Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern, when the United States was in the fourth year of negotiations to end the very long and domestically divisive Vietnam War. On October 26, 1972, twelve days before the election on November 7, the United States' chief negotiator, the 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 unpopular war during his presidential election campaign four years earlier, had failed to cease hostilities but significantly reduced American involvement, especially ground forces. Nixon was nevertheless already widely considered to be assured of an easy reelection victory against McGovern, but Kissinger's "peace is at hand" declaration may have increased Nixon's already high standing with the electorate. In the event, Nixon outpolled McGovern in every state except Massachusetts and achieved a 20-point lead in the nationwide popular vote. Remaining U.S. ground forces were withdrawn in 1973, but U.S. military involvement in Vietnam continued until 1975.
Since that election, the term "October surprise" has been used preemptively during campaign season by partisans of one side to discredit late-campaign news by the other side.
1968 Humphrey vs. Nixon
During the Vietnam War, the Republican challenger Richard Nixon anticipated announcement of a last-minute deal to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war by President Lyndon Johnson, which might earn incumbent Vice-President Hubert Humphrey enough votes to win election as President of the United States in the 1968 presidential election. Lyndon Johnson tried to salvage the election for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, with a false claim of a peace breakthrough in the Vietnam talks a few days before the election. LBJ announced an enhanced bombing halt and more intensive talks in which the Viet Cong and the Saigon government would be "free to participate". After President Johnson announced a halt of the bombing of North Vietnam on October 30, 1968, Humphrey surged ahead of Nixon in some polls, where days before they had been in a dead heat.
Bryce Harlow, former Eisenhower White House staff member, claimed to have "a double agent working in the White House.... I kept Nixon informed." Harlow and Henry Kissinger (who was friendly with both campaigns and guaranteed a job in either a Humphrey or Nixon administration) separately predicted Johnson's "bombing halt": "The word is out that we are making an effort to throw the election to Humphrey. Nixon has been told of it," Democratic senator George Smathers informed Johnson. According to Robert Dallek, Kissinger's advice "rested not on special knowledge of decision making at the White House but on an astute analyst's insight into what was happening". William Bundy stated that Kissinger obtained "no useful inside information" from his trip to Paris, and "almost any experienced Hanoi watcher might have come to the same conclusion". While Kissinger may have "hinted that his advice was based on contacts with the Paris delegation", this sort of "self-promotion ... is at worst a minor and not uncommon practice, quite different from getting and reporting real secrets." Nixon asked Anna Chennault to be his "channel to Mr. Thieu"; Chennault agreed and periodically reported to John Mitchell that Thieu had no intention of attending a peace conference. On November 2, Chennault informed the South Vietnamese ambassador: "I have just heard from my boss in Albuquerque who says his boss [Nixon] is going to win. And you tell your boss [Thieu] to hold on a while longer." In response, Johnson ordered wire-tapping members of the Nixon campaign. Dallek wrote that Nixon's efforts "probably made no difference" because Thieu was unwilling to attend the talks and there was little chance of an agreement being reached before the election; however, his use of information provided by Harlow and Kissinger was morally questionable, and Humphrey's decision not to make Nixon's actions public was "an uncommon act of political decency". Conrad Black agreed that there is "no evidence" connecting Kissinger, who was "playing a fairly innocuous double game of self-promotion", with attempts to undermine the peace talks. Black further commented that "the Democrats were outraged at Nixon, but what Johnson was doing was equally questionable", and there is "no evidence" that Thieu "needed much prompting to discern which side he favored in the U.S. election".
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 reelected. 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 Teheran 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. At least three books have argued the case.
1992 Bush vs. Clinton
Just four days before the vote that year, Ronald Reagan's defense secretary Caspar Weinberger was implicated[specify] 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, and on Christmas Eve 1992, in the waning days of his presidency, Bush pardoned Weinberger, just days before his trial was scheduled to begin.
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, a report Bush himself confirmed 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 series of Doonesbury strips made the term famous.
2004 Bush vs. Kerry
On October 27, The New York Times reported the disappearance of 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 (see 2004 Osama bin Laden video). In a speech that justifies and takes responsibility for the actions of September 11, bin Laden calls 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 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
The Mark Foley scandal, in which the congressman resigned over sexual computer messages 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.
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.
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 liberal 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 Obama vs. McCain
On 31 October 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 labelled an 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. Given that the event was not created by human beings, the term is a misnomer.
On September 17, left-leaning magazine Mother Jones published audio tape secretly recorded at a private Mitt Romney fund raiser wherein the candidate made disparaging remarks about the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax. While not occurring in October, some regarded the release as an "October Surprise" given its release relatively late in the election cycle and the fact that the original tape had been recorded in May. In subsequent writings, David Corn, the reporter who broke the story explained that the timing of the release was because of negotiations between Mother Jones and the man who recorded the tape over precisely how to release it. Corn insists that the timing was not politically motivated.
- 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
- Kissinger 2003:591
- Robert Dallek (2007), Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, HarperCollins, pp. 73–74.
- Dallek, pp. 74–75. In 1997, Chennault admitted that "I was constantly in touch with Nixon and Mitchell."
- Dallek, p. 75.
- Dallek, pp. 77–78.
- Conrad Black (2007), Richard Nixon: A Life in Full, PublicAffairs, p. 553.
- "John McCain and the October Surprise". The New York Observer. Retrieved 2009-01-27.
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.[dead link]
- Lewis, Neil A. (1993-01-13). "House Inquiry Finds No Evidence of Deal On Hostages in 1980". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-09-21.
A bipartisan House panel has concluded that there is no merit to the persistent accusations that people associated with the 1980 Presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan struck a secret deal with Iran to delay the release of American hostages until after the election.
- Lenahan, Rod (1998). Crippled Eagle: A Historical Perspective Of U.S. Special Operations 1976–1996. Narwhal Press. p. 178. ISBN 1-886391-23-8.
- "SIPA: Faculty Gary Sick". Sipa.columbia.edu. Retrieved 2010-11-18.[dead link]
- Gary Sick (April 15, 1991). "The Election Story of the Decade". The New York Times. reprinted in "Creating a Task Force to Investigate Certain Allegations Concerning the Holding of Americans as Hostages by Iran in 1980 (House of Representatives - February 05, 1992)". Fas.org. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- Dreifus, Claudia (1992-01-24). "Himself Surprised". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- Michael Ledeen (June 1, 1992). "October Surprise, by Gary Sick". Commentary. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- Daniel Pipes (January 1, 2003). "The "October Surprise" Theory". Daniel Pipes. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- Lewis, Neil A. (1991-05-07). "Bani-Sadr, in U.S., Renews Charges of 1980 Deal". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- "My turn to speak : Iran, the revolution & secret deals with the U.S. / Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr ; from a series of interviews by Jean-Charles Deniau ; foreword by L. Bruce Laingen". National Library of Australia Catalogue.
- Adam Cohen (November 13, 2000). "Fallout From A Midnight Ride". Time. Retrieved September 1, 2008.
- "CBS eyed '60 Minutes' Bush bombshell". The Washington Times. October 27, 2004. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- "Arnold Allegedly Praised Hitler in 1975 Interview". Fox News. October 3, 2003.
- Steve Lopez (2003-10-08). "Der Gropenfuhrer Muscles His Way Into Office – So What Now?". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- "Excerpts: Bin Laden video". BBC News. 2004-10-29. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- "Saudis said to boost oil output". Money.cnn.com. 2004-04-19. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- "Did Bush Cut Secret Oil Deal With Saudis Ahead of 2004 Election?". Democracy Now. April 20, 2004. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- Catherine Dodge; Jay Newton-Small (October 3, 2006). "October Surprise in This Campaign Puts Republicans On the Spot". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2006-10-03.
- "Is Foley Scandal the 'October Surprise'?". Fox News. October 6, 2006.
- Linton Weeks (October 21, 2006). "Boo!? An Inevitable October Surprise". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-09-21.
- National Journal, Data Bomb[dead link]
- Tom Engelhardt (October 17, 2006). "November Surprise?". The Nation. Retrieved 2006-10-18.
- Christine Hauser (November 5, 2006). "Praising Verdict, Bush Says U.S. Will Stand By Iraq". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-09-21.
- Goodman, Peter S. (November 8, 2008). "Jobless Rate at 14-Year High After October Losses". The New York Times.
- Jurek Martin (October 30, 2012). "Frankenstorm generates 'October surprise'],". Financial Times. Retrieved 2014-09-21.
- Aiko Stevenson (30 October 2012). "October Surprise Arrives With Less Than a Week to Go". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2014-09-21.
- Kissinger, Henry (2003). Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War. With new and updated material. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0743215329.
- Russia's Prime Minister and October Surprise - Consortium News - May 15, 1999
- Beware an October Surprise from bin Laden - Joseph S. Nye, Harvard Kennedy School
- October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan by Gary Sick.
- Hurricane Sandy might be an October Surprise, a site curated by MSU
- David Howard (May 27, 2012). "Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA". goodreads. Calls for ending the FBI's selective use of polygraphs to eliminate suspects.