"October Surprise" is a jargon in the US politics that points to news event that may influence the outcome of an upcoming election, particularly one for the US presidential election - whether deliberately planned or spontaneously occurring.
The term was coined by William Casey, the campaign manager of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. However, there were October election-upending events that predated the coining of the term.
Because the US presidential elections, as well as many state and local elections in the US take place in early November, events that take place in October have greater potential to influence the decisions of prospective voters.
Some examples of October Surprise in US presidential election history:
1972: Nixon vs McGovern
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 Remaining US ground forces were withdrawn in 1973, but US military involvement in Vietnam continued until 1975.
1980: Carter vs Reagan
In the 1980 US 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.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American diplomats hostage. In the election year that followed, Republicans had pointed to their continued captivity as proof of American weakness under Democratic President Carter.
As the election neared, the Carter team's negotiations with Iran seemed to stall. Tehran stopped talks in October. On October 21 Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Rajai unexpectedly declared the hostages would not be released while Carter was in the White House, according to an account by Gary Sick, a former Iran specialist on Carter's national security team.
In 1986, Iran's exiled ex-president Abdol Hassan Bani-Sadr said that Republican operatives had met in Paris in 1980 with Iranian agents. Sick alleged later that the Reagan campaign promised to sell Iran arms for its war with Iraq if the Islamic Republic agreed to delay the hostages' release until after the election. Congressional investigators found no credible evidence the Reagan campaign made a secret deal with Tehran to delay the hostages' release.
Reagan won the 1980 election by a landslide. Iran freed the hostages the day he was inaugurated, in exchange for about $3bn in Iranian assets frozen by the US. The hostage crisis certainly contributed to a sense of national malaise and gave Reagan yet another point on which to question Carter's leadership and competence.
1992: Bush vs Clinton
In June 1992, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was indicted in the Iran–Contra affair. Though he claimed 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 HW 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
During the 2000 US presidential election, George W Bush, then governor of Texas, was locked in a tight race with Democratic Vice-President Al Gore.
The economy appeared healthy, the US budget was in surplus, the Cold War had ended and 9/11 was still a year off.
News of Bush's arrest in 1976 for drink driving broke five days before the vote. Bush supporters immediately said the episode had been leaked by the Gore campaign, timed to maximum damaging effect. Bush himself said the Democrats had practiced "dirty politics".
The Gore campaign denied responsibility, and no evidence has ever arisen that Democrats were behind the release.
In one of the closest elections in American history, Gore won the popular vote by about 500,000 votes, but the US Supreme Court halted a re-count of disputed ballots in Florida, handing that state's 29 electoral votes to Bush for the victory.
Bush had long acknowledged past trouble with alcohol. And the day before the election, polls showed as many as eight out of 10 Americans felt the long-ago trouble with the law was irrelevant to the campaign.
2004: Bush vs Kerry
By 2004, the US had become mired in the war in Iraq. John Kerry, the Democrat, sought to capitalise on voter anger at the war, while Bush warned against changing course.
Less than a week before the election, Al-Jazeera broadcast a tape of Osama Bin Laden taunting Bush and issuing vague threats - and also discussing voter fraud in Florida and the US budget deficit. Bush immediately worked the images into his campaign message, warning that only he could keep America safe.
No Democrat made the outlandish claim that Bush somehow had conspired with the al-Qaeda leader. Indeed, Kerry supporters tried to use the video to remind voters Bush had failed to capture or kill him. Bush comfortably wins a second term.
2008: McCain vs Obama
Democrat Barack Obama held a slim lead in the polls through the summer. But Republican Senator John McCain, buoyed by excitement about running mate Sarah Palin, bounced into September with a slight lead of his own.
The October surprise for 2008 began in September, when the US economy began to plummet. Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 18 percent in the first week of October, and on October 3, it was announced the US had lost 159,000 jobs.
Undecided voters and voters who had only tepid support for McCain put the growing crisis down to Republican economic policies, analysts say. McCain seemed out of his depth in the panic, while Obama projected calm and competence. Heading into the last weeks of the campaign, Obama took a significant lead in the polls and won the election.
2012: Obama vs Romney
The incumbent Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney were pretty much neck-and-neck in the polls even 10 days before the election.
In the final days of October, Hurricane Sandy hit. The hurricane was a natural disaster that caused major damage in places such as New Jersey and New York as it tore along the East Coast of the US. Some media claimed it as an October surprise.
The disaster left behind by Hurricane Sandy gave Obama the chance to look presidential as he dealt with the emergency. Obama got a bipartisan boost from Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who supported the president in Sandy's wake.
Romney was put in a difficult position because he couldn't look like he was campaigning during the tragedy. President Obama won his second term in the White House.
2016: Clinton vs Trump
A recording from 2005 was released on October 7. In the recording Republican Party nominee Donald Trump, using explicit language, claimed "when you are a star, they let you do it. You can do anything... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything". Several politicians from both major parties expressed their disapproval of these remarks.
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 that would later become known as the Podesta Leaks. They shed light on Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and included recordings of excerpts of speeches given by Clinton to a variety of banks, a debate question being leaked to Clinton 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.
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. In the end, the investigation found nothing new and was wrapped up two days before Election Day, but by then, the damage had been done – as the Clinton campaign's focus groups showed.
Some pollsters say the letter caused a swing against her as large as 4 points. She effectively lost the election by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states, robbing her of victory in the Electoral College even as she won the national popular vote by nearly 3 million.
2020: Trump vs Biden
On September 27, The New York Times published a report stating that it had obtained at least two decades worth of tax return data of Donald Trump. The report showed that Trump "paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years—largely because he reported losing much more money than he made" and that he engaged in "a decade-long audit battle with the Internal Revenue Service over the legitimacy of a $72.9 million tax refund that he claimed, and received, after declaring huge losses".
Additional reports alleged that in 2016, the year he ran for president and 2017, his first year as president, Trump had only paid $750 in federal income tax. Trump responded by calling the Times story "fake news".
On October 1, 2020, senior White House aide Hope Hicks was diagnosed with Covid-19. She travelled with Trump to Ohio for the presidential debate on Tuesday and to Minnesota for a campaign event earlier in the week. T
Two days after the first presidential debate, on October 2, Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, tested positive for Covid-19. Trump commenced quarantine as a precaution, but within two hours tweeted that he and wife Melania tested positive for Covid-19.
News outlets have speculated that this is an October surprise. The Guardian said: "It is likely to go down as the biggest 'October surprise' in the history of US presidential elections".
Late on October 2, Trump headed to the Walter Reed medical center to be hospitalized and treated with an experimental antibody cocktail "out of precaution". Trump's coronavirus diagnosis has been deemed as 2020's third October Surprise. The outcome of this is to be witnessed after the November 3 election.
Political scientists are skeptical whether events in the final weeks can conspire against any election campaign make the difference.