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What is an October Surprise?

Definition and History of Last Minute Campaign Tactic


The term October Surprise has nothing to do with Halloween or spooky Trick or Treat costumes. The phrase October Surprise is used to describe a calculated political maneuver designed to generate news coverage and influence elections in the United States, which are held in November.

October Surprise History

Many political historians believe the term October Surprise has its roots in the 1972 presidential race between President Richard M. Nixon and Democratic challenger George McGovern. Others trace the tactic to the 1948 presidential contest between President Harry S. Truman and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey.

Regardless of its origin, October Surprise has become a household term in the American political lexicon. Claims about such trickery arise every fours year during presidential elections, and even during statewide and local elections held annually.

The idea behind unveiling an October Surprise is for a campaign to portray its candidate in a flattering light or, conversely, to portray an opponent in a negative light just before voters head to the polls on the first Tuesday in November.

Harry Truman and the October Surprise

Some political observers believe the use of an October Surprise first came about in the 1948 presidential election by Truman. Andrei Cherny, the president of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, has advanced this theory, writing that Truman hatched an ill-fated plan to send Chief Justice Fred Vinson to meet with Joseph Stalin in an effort to end the Cold War.

Cherny, writing in The Atlantic, theorizes that the emergence of a major foreign policy crisis into a presidential campaign benefits the acting commander-in-chief, in this case Truman, who brought up the issue repeatedly during his successful bid for re-election.

Richard Nixon and the October Surprise

Nixon is often credited with orchestrating the first October Surprise in the 1972 presidential election. The campaign was waged that year during the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. In late October, just days before the election, Nixon national security adviser Henry Kissinger declared that "peace is at hand" without any evidence to support such a claim. The pronouncement was widely seen as a political ploy.

Jimmy Carter and the October Surprise

The 1980 presidential election was one in which an October Surprise was widely expected but never materialized. The campaign between President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan took place amid the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Republicans worried that Carter would spring the news that American hostages were being release in the waning days of the campaign, but that development didn't occur until it was too late for the Democratic president. Iran made the announcement the day Reagan was inaugurated.

George W. Bush and the October Surprise

During the 2000 presidential campaign, news emerged in the final days of the race that Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Republican presidential nominee had once been arrested for drunken driving decades earlier. Bush won the election after defeating Democratic Vice President Al Gore.

John Kerry and the October Surprise

In the 2004 presidential election, Bush is believed to have benefited by the release of a videotaped message from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who acknowledged his role as mastermind of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush's Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, reportedly said the release of the tape just days before the election cost him the presidency because it scared the American people.

October Surprise in 2012

President Barack Obama was seeking a second term in the 2012 election and plagued by an abysmal economy still struggling to rebound from the Great Recession. Opponents suggested the October release of a positive jobs report, showing the unemployment rate had dipped below 8 percent to its lowest level in three and a half years, was evidence of a calculated political move.

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