You never quite know what to expect when October rolls around.
In baseball, it’s a month of miracles — and of letdown. In politics, it’s all about the element of surprise.
The presidential race is rounding third, but anything can happen on the way home. It’s called the “October surprise.”
The phrase strikes dread in the hearts of supporters of any candidate. Could a hacker release troves of damning emails? Could some sordid piece of someone’s past be revealed and shift the electorate? Could tax returns be released — or mailed to a reporter at the New York Times, revealing a candidate may not have paid taxes for two decades?
OK, you likely know by now that that last one happened this weekend (on Oct. 1, by the way) to Republican Donald Trump. Will another shoe drop?
October can be a long month for presidential candidates, their campaigns and supporters, as they near that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But what exactly is the origin of October surprises? And have they ever made a real difference in a presidential election? A look back at its history shows the “October surprise” might be more an invention of the anxious mind than something of real consequence that can shift an election.
But, hey, you never know.
First, where does the term come from?
For all things political jargon, we always first turn to the late political wordsmith William Safire. “Safire’s Political Dictionary” defines an “October Surprise” this way:
“Last-minute disruption before an election; unexpected political stunt, revelation, or diplomatic maneuver that could affect an election’s outcome. The prospect of an October surprise by the opposition, worries politicians.”
So where does the phrase come from? Again, Safire:
“In 1980, Reagan campaign manager William Casey told this Washington columnist of his suspicion that Democrats supporting the reelection of Jimmy Carter, trailing in the polls, would pull a fast one at the last minute. GOP vice presidential candidate George H.W. Bush soon promoted the term in a 1980 statement: ‘All I know is there’s concern, not just with us but I think generally amongst the electorate, well, this Carter’s a politically tough fellow, he’ll do anything to get reelected, and let’s be prepared for some October surprise.’ The Iran-Contra controversy, however, turned the attack phrase (as well as a variant, October fix) back on the Republicans. For a decade after the ’80 campaign, Carter aides charged that Reagan-Bush intermediaries influenced Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers to delay releasing American hostages until after the 1980 election. A congressional investigation found no evidence of such a plot.
“By 1991, the noun phrase was being applied to any controversial or unpleasant event in October. U.S. News & World Report commented in October 1991 that ‘The big investment story currently unfolding is not in stocks, where the financial industry is fanning fears of another nasty October surprise could lay in store. It’s in the fixed-income markets—bonds.’ ”
But 1980 — in that Bush speech on Oct. 2, 1980, in Eugene, Ore. — is only when the term went mainstream. “October surprise” actually goes all the way back to 1968, and again traces to Casey. Safire, who, like Casey, was a former aide to Richard Nixon, wrote, per Slate, that “Casey was afraid outgoing President Lyndon Johnson would engineer a Vietnam peace initiative to give Humphrey, his vice president, a boost over Nixon. Casey privately called it an October Surprise. Johnson did halt bombing in North Vietnam on Oct. 31, five days before the election, but Humphrey still lost.”
Notable October (and other) surprises in past presidential elections
Oct. 29 – Superstorm Sandy: Republicans were outraged when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in dire need of federal assistance as his state reeled, embraced President Obama. Some Republicans blamed Christie for Mitt Romney’s loss, but the reality was that Obama was already consistently ahead in the polls. In fact, analyses (including one by this reporter) showed that, because the storm affected largely Democratic strongholds along the Northeastern United States, it may have cost Obama as many as 800,000 votes.
The biggest “surprise” of the 2012 election, arguably, was the 47 percent tape in which Romney said 47 percent of the country would vote for Obama “no matter what,” because they were “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims” entitled to health care, food and housing. That happened, though, two weeks before October — on Sept. 17.
There weren’t any big October surprises in 2008. There were two that came close:
Nov. 1 — “Aunti Zeituni”: The AP reported that Barack Obama had a Kenyan aunt living illegally in the U.S. in public housing in South Boston, Zeituni Onyango. Obama said he didn’t know that the woman he’d described as his guide when he’d visited Kenya was living in the U.S. illegally. The revelation had little if any impact on the outcome of the election, because of the economic meltdown underway that led to the Great Recession. (As for Onyango, she eventually won asylum in 2010 but died four years later at 61.)
Sept. 15, 26 — Lehman Brothers collapse, McCain threatens to skip debate: Sept. 15 fundamentally reshaped the election. Lehman Brothers’ collapse put the economy in sharp relief. Republican John McCain, however, faltered, making three big mistakes: admitting that the economy wasn’t his strong suit; changing his message within a day and a half — first saying that the fundamentals of the economy were “strong,” and then describing it as in “total crisis”; and threatening to not show up to a presidential debate at Ole Miss on Sept. 26. McCain eventually showed, but the damage was done. All of that carried over into October and Obama’s election.
Oct. 29 – Bin Laden video: America’s Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden, released a video, his first in more than a year. The incident threatened to derail George W. Bush’s re-election, as the U.S. was engaged in a messy conflict in Iraq. But Bush, with his “stay the course” message, won anyway.
Nov. 2 – W.’s DUI: OK, it’s not October, but when something this big happens days before Election Day, it has to be in the conversation. It was revealed by a local Maine affiliate and relayed on Fox News that George W. Bush was arrested near the Bush family’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Sept. 4, 1976, after a night of drinking with John Newcombe, the former Australian tennis champion.
“I oftentimes said that years ago I made some mistakes,” Bush said at the time. “I occasionally drank too much and I did on that night. I regret that it happened. But it did. I’ve learned my lesson.”
Foreign donations: Again, there were no major October surprises. What came closest was what became a Democratic campaign finance scandal. An LA Times article on Sept. 21, 1996, reported that the Democratic National Committee returned a $250,000 contribution from a South Korean electronics company. Foreign nationals cannot contribute to American elections. Complicating matters, the man in charge of the company had been invited to a DNC fundraiser where he met President Clinton after making the pledge. Republicans accused Democratic Attorney General Janet Reno of dragging her feet on a wider Clinton campaign fundraising investigation, something that emerged early in 1997. One finding: “evidence that representatives of the People’s Republic of China sought to direct contributions from foreign sources to the Democratic National Committee before the 1996 presidential campaign … ,” the Washington Post reported.
Of course, Clinton went on to easily win re-election over Republican Sen. Bob Dole.
Oct. 30 – The Indictment of Caspar Weinberger: Notes taken by Weinberger, defense secretary under Reagan, contradicted George H.W. Bush’s assertion “that he was unaware at the time that arms sold to Iran were part of an arms for hostages deal.” Bush was vice president under Reagan.
H.W. lost that election, but most blame a deteriorating economy rather than this October surprise.
The seeds of October surprise can be found in this election. Despite George H.W. Bush voicing concern for an “October surprise” from the Carter campaign, it was the Reagan-Bush campaign that became the focus of allegations. It boils down to this: A Carter national security adviser and a former Iranian president alleged that the Reagan campaign made a secret deal with the Iranians not to free the hostages. A congressional investigation — the House panel actually became known as the “House October Surprise Task Force” — found no credible evidence for the accusation.
Still, that hasn’t stopped some from believing that it was or may have been true. The book Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands, for example, cites a 1996 meeting between Yasser Arafat, the late head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Jimmy Carter. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who was working on a book about Carter, was there, and, according to Brands’ book, Brinkley told a conference of diplomatic historians that Arafat told Carter that the Republicans had approached him in 1980 about seeing if he could keep the hostages in Iran until after the election. The book also notes a White House memo was eventually released that indicated Casey was in Madrid, where a meeting with the Iranians may have happened.
But, for as many lingering questions that remain, there are perhaps still as many holes.
Oct. 26 – “Peace is at hand”: Nixon National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger announced to reporters in the White House that “peace is at hand” with Vietnam. The six-column, double-deck headline on the front page of the New York Times the next day was: “KISSINGER ASSERTS THAT ‘PEACE IS AT HAND’; SAIGON SAYS IT WILL AGREE TO CEASE-FIRE.”
And just like that, Nixon had brought an end to the war in Vietnam. Not quite. Of course, the war raged on, and peace did not come so easily. The Nixon Library wrote:
“Kissinger’s optimistic comments about ending the war were consistent with the President’s wishes. White House conversations in the wake of the press conference are full of praise for Kissinger. Charles W. Colson reportedly told Kissinger that thanks to his performance the administration had ‘wiped [Democratic nominee Senator George] McGovern out.’ In a phone conversation President Nixon told Colson that the press conference had another good effect. The prospects of peace in Vietnam had ‘knocked Watergate out’ of the news.”
Nixon won re-election.
Oct. 31 – LBJ announces a halt to bombings in N. Vietnam, and the Anna Chennault affair: Johnson announced, based on what he said was progress in Paris peace talks, “I have now ordered that all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam cease as of 8 a.m., Washington time, Friday morning.”
The move perhaps worked politically. Gallup had Nixon ahead of Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, by 8 points in mid-October. But by Oct. 31, the last poll before Election Day, Nixon’s lead had been sliced to 1.
Whatever Johnson’s political motivations, little did he know there was no chance of peace. That’s because, as Walter Shapiro has written, Anna Chennault, “an emissary from Richard Nixon’s campaign,” was sent “to convince the South Vietnamese to scuttle any peace talks until after the election. When the Saigon government obediently balked, Lyndon Johnson railed on a White House tape that Nixon was guilty of treason.” (You can hear that here. The State Department Historian also has a whole cache of transcripts from phone calls and telegrams relating to the Chennault Affair.)
Oct. 13 — McCarthy finally endorses Humphrey: Anti-war Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy had a strong surprise second-place showing in New Hampshire against incumbent President Johnson. A day later, Bobby Kennedy announced he would seek the presidency, and shortly after that, Johnson surprised the country and announced he would not seek re-election. Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary, and Humphrey, Johnson’s VP, became the choice of the establishment. He was given the nomination at the Democratic National Convention without winning a single primary. McCarthy was left with a bitter taste and did not endorse Humphrey until far too late to make a notable difference.