A news event late in a political campaign that has the potential to influence the outcome of an election.
Because Election Day is typically held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, surprise events that take place in October can have the potential change the minds of prospective voters.
The term came first into use just after the 1972 presidential election, when the United States was in negotiations to end the domestically-divisive Vietnam War. Twelve days before Election Day, on October 26, 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger appeared at a White House press conference and announced, “We believe that peace is at hand.” Though Nixon was widely considered the favorite for re-election over challenger George McGovern, the news proved beneficial to Nixon as he went on to win every state except Massachusetts in the election.
However, according to the New York Observer, the “term ‘October surprise’ is most famously associated with the 1980 campaign, when Republicans spent the fall worrying that Jimmy Carter would engineer a last-minute deal to free the American hostages who had been held in Iran since the previous year. Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a close race, but an awful economy and flagging national confidence made the president supremely vulnerable.”
“Reagan’s campaign was particularly worried because there had already been two instances in the ’80 campaign cycle when news out of Iran had caused Carter’s anemic popularity to (briefly) soar: When the hostages were seized in late 1979 and again when he authorized a bold but unsuccessful rescue mission a few months later. In those instances, the American public instinctively rallied around its president. This was no small factor in Carter’s ability to beat back Senator Ted Kennedy’s Democratic primary challenge. The release of the hostages, Reagan’s forces knew, would almost certainly guarantee Carter’s reelection.”