Where Did the "October Surprise" Come From?

October 7th 2016

Mike Rothschild

Political pundits on both sides of the aisle were frantic with speculation over a possible earth-shaking "October Surprise" from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which was originally scheduled for release on Tuesday, October 4.

Assange claimed that Wikileaks — which has been steadily releasing hacked e-mails containing information about the internal function of the Democratic National Convention and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign — to had secret and explosive documents that would annihilate the Democratic nominee.

To the chagrin of Donald Trump supporters, Assange's press conference turned out to be less of a game changer and more of an infomercial for WikiLeaks, as he revealed nothing during the Tuesday press conference.

But those waiting for an "October Surprise" got it several days later, with the the revelation of a tape where Trump essentially brags about his adultery and ability to sexually assault women. Prominent Republicans began jumping off the Trump train in the wake of the tape, and it was just the first in a series of potentially devastating revelations about Trump's behavior with women. On Wednesday, the New York Times published a story where two women accused Trump of inappropriate and unwanted touching, once in the 70s and the other in 2005.


While virtually no negative story about Trump seemed to stick, this one did, and was followed by more allegations. The follow-up stories have included everything from Trump allegedly walking in on dressing rooms of the Miss Universe and Miss Teen USA pageants to a tape of Trump saying of a ten year old girl that he'd be "dating her in ten years." The deluge has become so intense that NY Mag's The Cut published a rolling list of accusations to be made against Trump for allegedly sexually inappropriate behavior.


At the same time, the Clinton campaign continues to be hit with leaks of hacked emails, with every day bringing a new dump of messages sent to and from campaign chair John Podesta. These have ranged from potentially explosive digs at the Catholic Church to an email listing campaign concerns about statements Clinton made during private speeches. In one excerpt culled from the emails, campaign officials fretted over Clinton admitting in a speech that politicians needs to hold both public and private stances on important issues.

It's clear that of the October surprises afflicting both campaigns, the deluge of Trump harassment allegations is the one having a real effect.


Since the release of the first tape, Trump's polling numbers among women and independent voters have crashed, with various surveys showing losses of between three to six points nationally from the Monday before to the day the tape was made public. Beyond that, polls in critical swing states are trending downward, with the fallout of the tape appearing to have flipped Ohio to Clinton, while solidifying her leads in Florida and Pennsylvania.

The Trump tape now clearly qualifies as the definition of a classic "October Surprise."

But such a concept is hardly new. In fact, it's tantalized us every four years for decades. To understand why the Trump fallout is so important, it's good to look at the history of the October surprise: where it came from, and why it's such a focal point of our elections.

The first October surprise.

The October surprise is so ingrained in American electoral culture that one might think the concept stretches all the way back to the founding of the country. But it's a recent invention, first identified in the 1960s and only spoken of publicly in following years.

Pundit and writer William Safire defined an October surprise as a "last-minute disruption before an election; unexpected political stunt, revelation, or diplomatic maneuver that could affect an election's outcome."

The name itself likely stems from William Casey, an aide to GOP candidate Richard Nixon, who used it in a private conversation with Nixon about President Lyndon Johnson's engineering of a last-minute peace treaty with North Vietnam to give his opponent, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, a boost in the 1968 presidential election.

As it turns out, Johnson did halt the bombing of North Vietnam on Oct. 30, 1968 – and Humphrey did surge in the polls as a result. The "surprise" wasn't enough, though, and Nixon won the presidency easily.

Since then, virtually every presidential election has been tagged with a "surprise" event in October that had the potential to derail one campaign and boost the other. But how many of these October surprises were actually relevant to the election they preceded — or were even surprises at all?

Nixon v. McGovern, 1972.

Some October surprises have had little effect on election outcomes.

Incumbent President Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, announced that peace in Vietnam was "at hand" just days before Nixon faced Democratic challenger George McGovern.

But Nixon was already crushing McGovern in the polls and didn't need an October surprise to win.

Carter v. Reagan, 1980.

The election that put the term into the popular lexicon occurred in 1980. It applied to the conspiracy theory that members of GOP candidate Ronald Reagan's campaign colluded with the CIA (whose director was, naturally, Casey) and Iran to delay the release of the hostages being held by Iran to make incumbent President Jimmy Carter look weak and ineffectual.

In the end, both houses of Congress and multiple media outlets investigated the conspiracy theory, and it proved to be groundless.

It was Reagan's own running mate, future vice president George H.W. Bush, who used the term publicly for the first time as a warning against any chicanery Carter might pull in the election.

"All I know is there's concern," Bush said in an October speech. "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."

In the end, Carter pulled no October surprise, and Reagan easily won the election.

Bush v. Clinton, 1992.

Officials in the administration of incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush decried the indictment of former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger just days before the election for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Bush had claimed that Weinberger knew nothing of scandal, in which the Reagan administration illegally sold weapons to Iran in order to fund Nicaraguan rebels. However, court documents indicated that Bush was well aware of Weinberger's role in the covert gun running scheme.

But Bush was already polling badly against Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, who eventually prevailed.

Bush v. Gore, 2000.

Republican candidate George W. Bush had to publicly admit to a DUI arrest in 1976 after it was reported only days before the election by a Maine newspaper.

Bush quickly confirmed the arrest.

It's possible the news was too minor to affect the election's outcome, though the final result of the hotly contested election against Democratic candidate Al Gore was famously close, and Bush was declared winner only after a ruling by the Supreme Court in December.

Bush v. Kerry, 2004.

One October surprise that might truly have changed the course of an election came in 2004, after the late October release of a video by Osama Bin Laden that laid out the justification for the 9/11 attacks.

By placing American focus back on Al Qaeda and away from the rapidly spiraling war in Iraq, it's thought that the video gave incumbent GOP President George W. Bush a polling bump of about four points.

This is debatable, as CNN exit polling revealed that a higher percentage of voters for Democratic candidate John Kerry believed the tape was important, while more Bush voters believed it wasn't. In any case, Bush won, which he was on track to do even before the tape was released.

Obama v. McCain, 2008.

There were a couple of surprises that likely helped Democratic candidate Barack Obama greatly in his two campaigns, though neither occurred in October.

Lehman Brothers collapsed in September of 2008, triggering the rapid onset of the Great Recession.


Experts believe Obama responded to the news far better than GOP candidate John McCain, who called it a "total crisis" and briefly suspended his campaign. According to a post-election report from the Washington Post, "By the time the senator from Arizona made the surprise announcement on Sept. 24 that he would suspend his campaign, a powerful image had been framed: of an "erratic," older Republican who could not be trusted to handle a crisis, economic or otherwise."

Obama v. Romney, 2012.

GOP candidate Mitt Romney's infamous comment about the "47 percent" of voters who "are dependent on the government" and "believe that they are victims," which was captured on tape, similarly went public in September, though the tape had been made months earlier.

Why the delay? The tape's maker took a while to decide whether to make it public.

Trump v. Clinton, 2016.

The Trump "Access Hollywood" tape will take its place in the annals of the truly election-changing October surprises. At this point, the only question is: what else is out there? And will any of it be worse?

Ironically, Trump himself once teased an October surprise against Obama in 2012, ominously declaring to Fox and Friends, "I have something very, very big concerning the president of the United States. It's very big, bigger than anyone would know."

It turned out Trump had no information at all, only a "deal" for Obama: $5 million to charity if the president released his college transcripts and passport.

Unsurprisingly, Obama refused the deal.