This Month in History: The term “October surprise” comes into use
During this month in 1972, the term “October surprise” came into use. An October surprise, as you may know, is a news story that is held until just before an election, in the hopes that it will affect voters’ decisions at the ballot box.
To be fair, some people argue that the first “October surprise” really occurred in 1980, not 1972.
Republican Richard Nixon was then facing off against Democrat George McGovern. Nixon was ahead and likely to win anyway. However, with only days to go before the election, an announcement was made that may have helped Nixon even more. On October 26, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger gave a press conference at which he announced, “We believe that peace is at hand.”
American involvement in Vietnam had then been dragging on for years and years (and years). Voters were tired of the war and surely loved Kissinger’s promise.
Was the announcement entirely accurate? Was progress really being made? Who knows? More bombings would follow, and it would be several years before American troops were finally withdrawn from Vietnam. Either way, the announcement may have added to Nixon’s winning margin that year.
The “October surprise” in 1980 also involved foreign affairs.
At the time, incumbent President Jimmy Carter was working to free hostages in Iran. The Ronald Reagan campaign anticipated a last-minute hostage release, and it worked to desensitize the voting public to the possibility of such an “October surprise.” In the end, the surprise worked the other way: Iran refused to release the hostages until after the election.
That announcement may have undermined Carter’s re-election bid.
In later months and years, some would allege that the Reagan campaign actively worked during the fall of 1980 to prevent Iran from releasing the hostages too soon. Reagan officials always denied that allegation, and a congressional inquiry failed to find any evidence of such a plot.
What other October surprises have influenced elections?
In 2000, a news story broke less than a week before the election: Americans discovered that then-Republican nominee George W. Bush had once been arrested for driving under the influence. Some people believe that the last-minute revelation suppressed turnout for Bush. Given the close election outcome, did that October surprise nearly change history?
Maybe, but there is no way to really know.
Finally, in 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney perhaps got a double hit, although one event was beyond anybody’s control. First, a videotape was released of Romney speaking negatively of the “47 percent” who were dependent on government. The tape was technically released in September, but its last-minute release is believed to have hurt Romney. Second, Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S., giving incumbent President Barack Obama plenty of opportunities to look presidential, even as Romney took a back seat on the evening news.
Will an October surprise hit this year? (Or has it already?) And, if so, will it be effective? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
Andrew Malcolm, The Fox News story that nearly sank a Bush presidency before it began (LA Times; Mar. 5, 2010)
Chris Cillizza, Why Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment was so bad (Mar. 4, 2013)
Edwin Meese III, Reagan: The Inside Story (2015)
Larry Berman, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (2001)
Taylor Gee, 15 October Surprises That Wreaked Havoc on Politics (Politico; Oct. 4, 2016)
The 21st-Century Voter: Who Votes, How They Vote, and Why They Vote (Guido H. Stempel III & Thomas K. Hargrove eds. 2015)
William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008)