The History of the October Surprise

From assiduous editorials to destructive superstorms, the last weeks of presidential elections have seen shocking campaign twists

Lyndon Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson reviews a speech he will make about the Vietnam War, just weeks before the 1968 election. Bettmann / Getty Images
Editor's Note, October 2, 2020: Four years ago, we explored the much-discussed political phenomenon known as the "October Surprise." With today's news about President Trump and other members of his administration testing positive for Covid-19, we are recirculating this story, which highlights how the final weeks before the presidential election have often introduced unexpected shocks to the race.

Friday, October 7, 2016, may have been among the strangest, most tumultuous days in American political history. No fewer than three events occurred that in any other campaign would have shocked the nation. Most infamously, The Washington Post released a devastating 2005 video showing Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women: “When you're a star they let you do it.” Moments later, Wikileaks released the transcripts of some of the Wall Street speeches delivered by Hillary Clinton, which had been a contentious point during the Democratic primary.

This was all just hours after Trump had claimed that the “Central Park Five” were guilty, even though the suspects in the 1989 case were exonerated through DNA evidence and the true perprator has confessed. It was a day of “October Surprises” after the previous week had already had a few of them, including revelations from The New York Times that the Republican may have avoided paying federal taxes for some 18 years.

The term “October Surprise” was coined by a 1980s political operative but has ever since been appropriated by the media to describe unexpected political disasters in the twilight hours of the campaign. Sometimes they are intentionally positioned by political opponents to impact voters, often days before they head to the polls. They aren’t always successful, but they’ve become a staple of modern politics.

Though the term was coined by Reagan campaign manager and future CIA director William Casey during the 1980 campaign, the October surprise enjoyed a long, unusual history even before it entered American political vernacular:

1800: A Non-Violent Revolution

Historians generally consider the presidential contest of 1800 “one of the dirtiest in American history,” and Thomas Jefferson’s ongoing smear campaign against then-president John Adams climaxed with an unexpected October broadside. Alexander Hamilton, a longtime political foe of Adams, published a 54-page document assailing the President: “If we must have an enemy at the head of the government, let it be one whom we can oppose…who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.”

This may seem tame considering that writer (and Jefferson surrogate) James Callendar had spent months ridiculing Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” among other insults. Nevertheless, Hamilton's attack scandalized his contemporaries. As historian Joseph Cummins explains, “Some historians feel that Hamilton had temporarily lost his mind…there is even the possibility that the letter was stolen from Hamilton and published without his consent.”

Either way, it worked: Jefferson won the presidency—and we all know what happened to Hamilton. The smear was not entirely an “October surprise” in the modern sense of the term, but it’s one of the earliest examples of an effective late-campaign attack on a candidate.

1880: The ‘Chinese Problem’

Eighty years later, October struck again when the newspaper New York Truth published a letter allegedly written by Republican candidate James Garfield about concerns over Chinese immigrants stealing jobs from American workers.

The “Chinese problem” wasn’t really a problem, Garfield allegedly wrote, supposedly claiming that there was nothing wrong with businesses hiring labor “where they can get it the cheapest." The letter infuriated workers concerned about the influx of foreign labor into the country. A subsequent investigation proved the letter a fake (the journalist who fabricated the correspondence was later arrested for fraud), but the incident cost Garfield a victory in California, although he ultimately captured the presidency.

1884: Rum, Romanism and Rebellion

Sometimes, political campaigns go off the rails all on their own. On October 29, 1884, a Presbyterian minister disparaged Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism and rebellion,” a comment Republican candidate James Blaine failed to refute on the spot.

Instead, Blaine waited until November 1 to speak out against the claim, but it was too late. State Democrats used the remarks (and his late response) to paint Blaine as a "Catholic-hater." New York—and the presidency—was narrowly awarded to Grover Cleveland on the backs of Irish Catholic workers. The candidate's failure to disclaim the remark went down in American political history as a quintessential campaign gaffe—an early example of how unforced errors late in the campaign can derail a candidate’s electoral aspirations.

1912: Shots Fired

Theodore Roosevelt’s October surprise came in the form of a bullet to the chest from John Schrank, who shot the Progressive Party candidate during a speech in Milwaukee on October 14. To the horror of the assembled crowd, Roosevelt casually removed his prepared remarks, dripping with blood, from his pocket and carried on with his speech.

“I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot,” he quipped, “but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” The 50-page speech had saved his life, but it didn't save his shot at the presidency. While Woodrow Wilson won the presidency, Roosevelt’s speech remains, in Cummins’ words, “one of the great dramatic moments in American politics.”

1956: A Global Affair

October surprises sometimes center on dirty tricks by rival campaigns, but the presidential election of 1956 marks the first time global affairs upended campaign logic late in the election. In the two weeks before Election Day, twin crises—the Hungarian uprising on October 23 and the Israeli army’s military expedition into Egypt on October 29—helped solidify then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s stature in the White House.

As Roll Call's Walter Shapiro observes, Eisenhower “probably would have romped home in a re-election landslide” regardless, but the saga helped underscore the flexibility of electoral affairs in an increasingly globalized world.

1968: Bombs Away

With Democrat Hubert Humphrey trailing Republican Richard Nixon in the polls, then-president Lyndon Johnson unleashed a geopolitical surprise of his own. On October 31, Johnson announced the suspension of American bombing runs in North Vietnam.

It was the equivalent of a political middle finger to Nixon, who was running on a promise to end the war, and gave Humphrey a much-needed boost in the polls. A few days later, Nixon responded in kind, sending an emissary to convince the South Vietnamese to hit pause on peace efforts until after he trounced Humphrey in the polls.

Nixon still won in the Electoral College—historian Robert Dallek wrote that his late-stage efforts “probably made no difference”— but LBJ’s move narrowed the margin of victory over Humphrey in the popular vote.

1972: Peace Is At Hand

Henry Kissinger’s infamous declaration that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam at a White House press conference less than two weeks before Election Day is one of the most infamous examples of the October surprise. The optimism was misplaced—the war in Vietnam wouldn't come to a close for more than two years—but it had the convenient effect of distracting the public from the President's Watergate scandal.

While Nixon was assured a victory over the feeble George McGovern anyway, the announcement helped soothe an electorate frustrated by the ongoing conflict and gave Nixon a hefty boost in the polls.

1980: The October Surprise Conspiracy Theory

When American hostages in Iran were freed mere minutes after President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, political observers alleged that the Reagan campaign had somehow convinced the Iranian government to delay the release until after the election. The move, it seemed, was itself an attempt to counter a potential October surprise from the Carter camp, echoing Nixon's attempt to thwart LBJ’s October assistance to Humphrey a decade before.

The strongest accusation came from former Ford and Carter national security adviser Gary Sick in a New York Times editorial in 1992. Sick, with the help of scores of interviews, argued that “individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages,” promising Tehran a cache of Israeli weapons in return. Former Iranian president Abolhassan Banisadr repeated the allegations, but Congress initially refused to conduct an inquiry and a conspiracy theory was born.

1992: Iran-Contra Returns

The highly competitive three-way 1992 presidential contest took a retro turn after Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice during the Iran-Contra investigation of the mid-1980s.

The news broke just four days before the election, spurring Republicans to accuse U.S. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh—himself a registered Republican—of using the indictment to dampen George H.W. Bush’s re-election chances. Clinton defeated Bush, who then pardoned Weinberger in the twilight days of his presidency.

2000: Bottoms Up

While Bush v. Gore has since overshadowed Bush vs. Gore as the preeminent controversy of the 2000 presidential contest, a late-campaign FOX News report nearly blew George W. Bush out of the water. Days before Election Day, (this was really a November surprise) the cable news network reported that Bush was arrested for drunk driving in 1976 after a night of partying with tennis pro John Newcombe.

"I'm not proud of that,” Bush told reporters during a press conference. “I made some mistakes. I occasionally drank too much, and I did that night. I learned my lesson.” It didn’t matter much: The Supreme Court eventually awarded Bush the presidency in December after a controversial recount in Florida.

2004: The War on Terror

In the first presidential election since the September 11 attacks, a string of events allegedly helped Bush by putting national security back in the electoral spotlight. While an October 25 New York Times story about the missing arsenal of explosives in Iraq gave Democrat John Kerry ammunition against George W. Bush’s war on terror, the news rebounded when, days later, Al Jazeera aired video of Osama Bin Laden taking responsibility for 9/11 and ridiculing the Bush administration. The media rightly guessed that the tape was released to influence the course of the election: The sight of America’s terror boogeyman gave Bush a six-point lead in the polls headed into November.

2008: Auntie O

In the waning days of the 2008 election, the Associated Press reported that Democrat Barack Obama’s half-aunt Zeituni Onyango lived illegally in Boston for years after the Department of Homeland Security ordered her to leave the country in 2004. The news came at the close of a campaign in which falsehoods about Obama’s birthplace and his schooling in Indonesia permeated the airwaves.

It’s difficult to gauge the impact of the disclosure: Republican John McCain had gradually cut Obama’s lead in the polls in the run-up to Election Day, and Obama aides spun the timing of the announcement as “suspicious.” Nonetheless, Obama won with 365 votes in the Electoral College and 52.9 percent of the popular vote.

2012: The Storm Before the Storm

Last election’s October surprise wasn’t the result of political scheming or well-timed investigative reporting, but a freak of nature. Hurricane Sandy, which devastated communities up and down the East Coast in the closing days of October, had two important effects: It took swing states New Hampshire and Virginia off the campaign trail for a week or two and gave President Obama the opportunity to appear presidential while responding to a national emergency. The image of then-popular Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie warmly greeting Obama in the aftermath of the storm didn’t help either, according to political analysts at the time.

While Obama was already on the rebound in the national polls after a mixed performance during the presidential debates, Hurricane Sandy gave him an additional edge days before the election. The rest, as they say, is history.

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