How Many October Surprises Have There Been?

History Q & A

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern

The first election in which an "October Surprise" played a role in the campaign was in 1864. Thereafter it was a central concern in the campaigns of 1956, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1980, 1996, 2000, and 2004. The term "October Surprise" originated in the 1980 campaign, and was coined by then Republican vice presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush. The Reagan campaign was fearful that with the hostages still being held in Iran, that incumbent and Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter would negotiate their release just prior to the presidential election, thus ensuring he would win, hence the "October Surprise.

The term usually refers, as one website put it, to a "political revelation or dramatic policy move, made late in the campaign, designed to affect the outcome of a presidential election," which is usually engineered by the party in power. Princeton political science professor Fred Greenstein describes it as "the notion is that the October surprise is a Halloween trick for politicians." But it can also be defined loosely as an event taking place late in a campaign that dramatically affects the outcome. The capture of Osama bin Laden between now and the election would fit this definition.


In the spring of 1864 in the midst of the Civil War, Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln was worried that he would go down to defeat. Two events helped propel him to certain victory. First, the Democratic Convention, held in Chicago, nominated the former union general, George McClellan, and adopted a peace platform, which called for a negotiated end to the war, as well as a repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation. The second was the increase in decisive Union victories: Admiral G. Farragut captured Mobile; two days after the Democratic convention General Sherman took Atlanta and began marching through Georgia, Ulysses S. Grant made made progress at Petersburg, and General Philip Sheridan began his devastation of Virginia.

These victories were a turning point, which almost guaranteed an end to the war, and a Union victory. The Albany Journal wrote, "If you want to know who is going to vote for McClellan, mention Atlanta to them. The long face and the low muttered growl is sufficient. On the other hand, every Lincoln man bears a face every lineament of which is radiant with joy." After these developments, the Radical Republican candidate, John C. Fremont, dropped out of the campaign, and the Radical Republicans supported Lincoln's re-election. Lincoln won a decisive victory in the election. Referring to the 2004 election, historian David Herbert Donald recently wrote: "I fear an October surprise, which, of course, Lincoln was able to produce with Sherman's help…. Then of course there's the other side of it. Lincoln's opponents in effect committed suicide. Put a general [George McClellan] on your ticket and a peace platform."


In the midst of the final days of the campaign between the Republican incumbent Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson two foreign developments dominated the news. The first was the Suez Canal crisis. Egypt President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal which prompted the canal's stockholders, Britain and France, with the help of Israel to invade Egypt. They intended to get rid of Nasser and internationalize the canal. Their attack was kept secret from President Eisenhower, who saw this as a betrayal by America’s allies. Eisenhower joined with the United Nations and Russia in condemning the Anglo-French-Israeli action and pressured them to withdraw their troops. Eisenhower backed up his words by imposing economic sanctions on the three countries; soon after they withdrew their troops.

Almost simultaneously Eisenhower was confronted by another international crisis. The Soviet Union brutally invaded Hungary, in an attempt to suppress the Hungarian government's threat to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Officials of the Eisenhower administration had previously shown support for liberating countries under Soviet domination. But Eisenhower chose not to come to the assistance of the Hungarian government, fearful that doing so might touch off a war with the Soviets. Instead, Eisenhower chose to condemn the invasion and to assist the Hungarian refugees. Although before these crises it was a forgone conclusion that Eisenhower would win his re-election bid, the events helped widen his margin of victory. The American people were not willing to change their president at a time of international uncertainty, and Eisenhower's military record and leadership experience was deemed by the voters as assets in this climate.


On October 19, two days before the final debate between Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Vice President Richard Nixon, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King was arrested. King was jailed along with 52 other blacks who were trying to desegregate a Georgia restaurant. He was sentenced to four months of hard labor based on breaking probation (King had previously been charged with driving without a license, when he actually had been driving with an Alabama license in Georgia). King's wife, Coretta, was frantic and called Harris Wofford, a Kennedy campaign aide , claiming that "they are going to kill him [King]." Wofford contacted Sargent Shriver, who was married to Kennedy's sister Eunice. Shriver convinced Kennedy that he should telephone King's wife, which he did, expressing his concern. Meanwhile, Kennedy's brother Robert negotiated with the judge and secured a promise that King would be released on bail.

In contrast, Nixon consulted with Eisenhower's attorney general, who advised him not to intervene in the matter. The Kennedys' intervention gained JFK support from blacks, including King's father, an influential minister who had previously supported Nixon. The senior King told the press, "I've got a suitcase of votes, and I'm going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap." As Evan Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life, "Just two phone calls--one by JFK, one by RFK--decided the outcome of the election, and determined the course of racial politics for decades to come." Kennedy won the close election, 49.7 percent to Nixon's 49.5 percent.


On October 14, LBJ aide Walter Jenkins was arrested for disorderly conduct in a Washington YMCA under compromising circumstances. Jenkins, who held the position of special assistant to the president, was not only a close and loyal staffer but a family friend. Johnson campaign advisors believed that the incident would cause problems for Johnson's campaign, and that Johnson should distance himself from Jenkins, and campaign with his wife and daughters during the last two weeks of the campaign. Johnson immediately released a statement that Jenkins had resigned from his position, but did not clarify what the position was. However, Johnson did not personally distance himself from Jenkins, offering Jenkins a position as the manager of the Johnson ranch, while the First Lady issued a statement stating, "My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the point of exhaustion in dedicated service to his country. Walter Jenkins has been carrying incredible hours and burdens since President Kennedy's assassination. He is now receiving the medical attention that he needs."

Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate believed that the arrest gave him the ammunition he needed to make the case of moral decline. Although no medical excuse could be found to cover the Jenkins story, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover decided to intervene, claiming that Barry Goldwater and his campaign had actually set-up Jenkins as part of a "Republican plot" to bring down Johnson. Hoover made this connection because Jenkins had served in the same Air Force unit which was commanded by Goldwater. In order to legitimize his claims, Hoover conducted an elaborate investigation. The Jenkins issue however, disappeared from the newspapers within days, and was eclipsed by foreign policy issues. Communist China successfully tested its first nuclear device and the Moscow politburo overthrew Nikita Khrushchev. The Jenkins issue became irrelevant in the campaign, and President Johnson won the election by a landslide.


In October, President Lyndon Johnson was attempting to reach an agreement with the North Vietnamese in the Paris peace talks. This would allow him to halt the bombing which would salvage Vice President and Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey's campaign. The Republican candidate Richard Nixon realized that Johnson was attempting to use the power of the presidency to help Humphrey, and accused him of doing so. Johnson denounced such claims as "ugly and unfair." However, five days before the election on October 31, President Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, stating, "I have reached this decision on the basis of developments in the Paris talks, and I have reached the belief that this action will lead to progress for a peaceful settlement of the Vietnam War." Humphrey of course said he was pleased: "I have been hoping for months that it would happen, for months." The bombing halt allowed many people to conclude that the end of the war might be approaching, putting Humphrey in a favorable position. Humphrey went up in the polls, but when the South Vietnamese government indicated it would not negotiate, Humphrey's ratings again slid. Nixon won the election by a slim margin.


In the weeks leading up to the end of the campaign Nixon suspended bombing in Vietnam and engaged in secret negotiations with the National Liberation Front. Just before the election at an October 26 press conference, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced, "We did agree that we would make a major effort to conclude the negotiations by October 31. As far as Saigon is concerned, it is of course entitled to participate in the settlement of a war fought on its territory. Its people have suffered much and they will remain there after we leave. We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is within sight, It is inevitable that in a war of such complexity that there should be occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution." Kissinger's announcement convinced many voters that the Vietnam War would soon be over, helping Nixon win a landslide victory against his opponent, Democratic candidate George McGovern, who ran on a peace platform.


Republican candidate Ronald Reagan's campaign strategists, fearful of a late-breaking deal ending the Iranian hostage crisis, warned the public about the possibility Jimmy Carter could use the presidency to manipulate events and win the election. To neutralize the effect on the country of an "October Surprise," Reagan and his strategists continually mentioned the possibility of something happening at the last minute. They believed that by bringing up the issue in advance the voters would see it as a cynical bid for votes rather than as the product of careful statesmanship. As Reagan said on a Tampa Bay television station in early October: “Presidents can make things happen you know.” With the one year anniversary of the hostage taking approaching on Election Day, Reagan’s comments were intended to cause public cynicism. Reagan ended up winning the election by a narrow popular margin. The hostages were released within an hour of Reagan's inauguration.

This was not however, the end of the story. Soon after Reagan was sworn into office there were theories that, as Gary Sick a former aide on the National Security Council staff for the Carter Administration wrote in a 1991 op-ed and later in a book, "individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the U.S. election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel." The agreement also supposedly included a $40 million bribe. Sick believed that George Bush was one of those Americans that were associated with the negotiations. William Casey, a campaign adviser who was appointed head of the CIA, was also linked to the negotiations. The theory gained credibility when the Iran-contra affair was revealed. In exchange for help in releasing the American hostages held in Lebanon, the United States sold Iran truckloads of weapons. Two congressional inquiries have concluded that there is no proof the Reagan campaign made a deal with Iran in 1980.


Going into the election, the Republican candidate and incumbent president, George H. W. Bush, hoped the GATT talks would result in a free trade deal. This would have given Bush an advantage over Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. Instead the Friday before the 1992 election, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who served in the Reagan administration, was indicted by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh in connection with the Iran-contra affair. The indictment distracted Bush's campaign and suggested to some that Bush, who had claimed he was "out of the loop," had possibly not been honest about his own role in the scandal.


President Bill Clinton the incumbent Democratic candidate looked to create his own October Surprise in his re-election bid against Republican candidate Bob Dole. In June Clinton met with top FBI and CIA aides in hope of organizing a successful sting against the Russian Mafia, which had ben rumored to be interested in selling a nuclear missile. The operation failed to become a real October Surprise, however. Clinton also hoped he might be able to broker a last-minute deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. The two sides however only agreed to more talks. Clinton nonetheless won reelection, the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt.


In early November, just days before the election, police documents were leaked revealing that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in Kennebunkport, Maine in the mid 1970s. These revelations hurt Bush at the polls, and may have cost him a popular majority. Karl Rove, his chief political advisor, believes the news disillusioned millions of evangelical voters on whom Bush was counting. Bush of course won the election after the Supreme Court intervened.


In the presidential campaign's closing weeks, Democrats have been bracing for an October surprise, an event so dramatic it could influence the outcome of the election. Neither Republican incumbent George W. Bush nor Democrat John Kerry has a comfortable enough lead in the polls to afford an October Surprise. Possible surprises that could alter the election's outcome include: a major setback in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, the capture of Osama bin Laden, a nuclear test by North Korea, an economic shock, or another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

comments powered by Disqus