In American political jargon, an October surprise is a news event deliberately created or timed or sometimes occurring spontaneously to influence the outcome of an election, particularly one for the U.S. presidency. 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 these relatively last-minute news stories could either completely change the entire course of an election or strongly 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. There have been however October election-upending events that predate the coining of the term.
1972: McGovern vs. Nixon
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 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 Remaining U.S. ground forces were withdrawn in 1973, but U.S. military involvement in Vietnam continued until 1975.
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 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. 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: Kerry vs. Bush
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. 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 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
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 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: Romney vs. Obama
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.
2016: Clinton vs. Trump
On October 7, a recording from 2005 was released in which Republican Party nominee Donald Trump, using explicit language, claimed that women let him kiss and grope them because he is "a star". 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 strongly negative light on Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, and included voice excerpts of speeches given by Clinton to a variety of banks, debate questions being leaked to Hillary 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.
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 after being accused of sending explicit pictures to a minor. The emails were found on a computer used by both Weiner and his ex-wife, top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, according to law enforcement officials. 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.
- 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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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.
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