Where is the October Surprise?

October 25, 2008

With all the fast-breaking political news on a daily basis these days, one question keeps looming — where is the October surprise? This term usually keeps everyone – including the candidates, their campaign staff, reporters and whoever else – on their toes.

A classic American political term, “October surprise” refers to a news event that can impact the outcome of an election, particularly one for the presidency. This term derives from the fact that elections are held in November, and any event occurring during October has a great potential to swing votes. These October events, as history has shown, can be either manufactured or as occurring beyond anyone’s control.

The October surprise first emerged in October 1968 during the presidential race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. The incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson announced a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam, at a time when polls showed the Republican candidate Nixon in a comfortable lead. Johnson explained that progress had been made in the peace negotiations and he believed that the war would be over before the election in November. Well, the war did not end, but this announcement almost erased Nixon’s lead, down to only 500,000 popular votes over Humphrey on Election Day.

Four years later, when President Richard Nixon raced against Senator George McGovern, his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a startling announcement that “peace was at hand” with North Vietnam, due to a major breakthrough in the Paris peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. With the help of this announcement, President Nixon defeated McGovern by a 20-point popular vote margin in one of the largest landslides in American history. The irony of this announcement was that the war continued until 1975, three years later, only after Nixon resigned from office due to the Watergate scandal.

Eight years later (1980), Democratic President Jimmy Carter attempted to create an October surprise by organizing a commando mission into Iran to rescue the American embassy hostages held there, a mission that collapsed when several helicopters crashed into each other, killing some commandoes. Then the Iranian government came out with its own October surprise, that the hostages would not be released until after the American election, a surprise that favored the Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. The hostages were eventually released, on the day of Reagan’s inauguration. This fueled suspicions that Reagan himself might have made a deal with the Iranians prior to the election, suspicions that have never been proven or disproved to this day.

The 1992 presidential election was overshadowed by an October surprise when Caspar Weinberger, former President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, for participating in the transfer of missiles to Iran and then lying to the investigators about his role in this transfer. This announcement jeopardized President George H.W. Bush’s re-election chances, losing to Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The Republicans angrily accused the Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh over the timing of the indictment for political purposes. On Christmas Eve, before leaving the White House, President Bush pardoned Weinberger several days before his trial was scheduled to begin.

A few days before the November 2000 election, a Fox News reporter discovered an old report that Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in Maine in 1976. Bush held a press conference immediately to confirm this incident, resulting in his poll standings being affected greatly. However, this only led up to a very hotly-contested presidential race that ended up in the Supreme Court deciding in his favor against Vice President Al Gore.

In the 2004 presidential election, two October surprises came on the scene. On October 29, the Arabic news agency Al Jazeera aired a video of the terrorist Osama bin Laden who claimed, “Your security does not lie in the hands of Kerry, Bush, or al-Qaeda… Your security is in your own hands.” This is believed to have helped President Bush’s campaign as it thrust the war on terrorism back into the public eye.

The second 2004 October surprise took place on a 60 Minutes broadcast with this remark: “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 US economy is strong on Election Day.” In other words, this promise from the Saudi prince helped deliver a Bush victory.

The most recent October surprise occurred in the last national election two years ago, again through two different events — North Korea’s underground test of a nuclear weapon and the other event being the Mark Foley scandal, in which the Republican congressman resigned over sexual computer messages with underage congressional pages. The Foley scandal broke on September 28, 2006 and dominated the news in early October.


This year has been rather unprecedented in terms of record-breaking fundraising efforts and voluminous news events, so much events that media pundits are still filtering to see if an October surprise, one or several, has already taken place. On the surface, one can say that it is the economy on the brink of collapse, or the government bailout, which effectively nationalized our financial institutions in the socialist fashion. What about Sarah Palin’s $150,000 wardrobe makeover? Joe the Plumber? A McCain campaign worker lying about being beaten up by an Obama supporter? Or is there a real October surprise still waiting to happen?? But then again, we may not see one in during the month of this October.

Looking back to the last election cycle, news came out that the Saddam Hussein trial verdict would be rendered on November 5, 2006, just two days before the U.S. midterm elections, leading Tom Engelhardt of liberal magazine The Nation to dub it the “November Surprise.” Maybe we ought to wait for a “November surprise” instead of an “October surprise”??

Will it be October? Or November?? Still holding my breath…

Thank you- DEAF DEMOCRATS Editors



  1. If my memory serves me correctly from reading somewhere, the word reached inside the Capitol 15 minutes before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated that Iran had freed the American prisoners. It has — for the record — never been ascertained as to whether Iran did that for Carter. Some historians argued that Iran had mistimed and believed that Iran rejoiced the departure of Carter. Carter himself was deeply disillusioned and felt defeated when the insiders of the Capitol whispered into Reagan’s ear about the phone call from Iran.

    Something surprising or shocking like above could happen in November.

    Obama / Biden for 2008

  2. I think the October Surprise may be the release of the audiotape in which Obama clearly and concisely discusses his economic plans and they are very socialist in view. This audiotape is from 2001. Every poll out there now shows a tightening race, and the most accurate poll of the 2004 race shows a statistical tie, with 11% undecided. I can’t remember the name of the poll, something like “Independent Business week” or something like that. In the 2004 election, it was accurate to .04%

    Jean, I believe you are correct, word reached Reagan about 15 minutes before his inauguration, or something like that. It was very close.

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