Skip to Content

October Surprise

An October surprise is a news event which takes place shortly before a closely-watched election and which may influence the election’s outcome.

Usually, the term in reference to a presidential election, although it can be applied to any election.

The intent or result of such an event is to sway public opinion and influence the outcome of the election.

It can be orchestrated by a candidate’s campaign or occur independently, and typically pertains to issues of national importance such as foreign policy, economic news, or personal scandals.

October surprise wasn’t always a political term. In the early 20th century, it referred to the annual autumn sales held by major department stores. Around 1980, people started using October surprise in its modern political sense.

An October surprise can take many different forms.

A natural disaster, an economic downturn, or even a war can all impact elections, especially if they take place just before people go to the polls. All of those count as an October surprise.

However, the term is more commonly used for deliberately planned news events. Last-minute revelations about a candidate’s personal life or their finances can also constitute an October surprise.

october surprise

In 2000, George W Bush was running for president against Al Gore. The two were in a close race, but Bush appeared to have pulled ahead.

Then in early November, the news broke that Bush had been arrested and charged with a DUI in Maine back in 1976. The news shook Bush’s support.

Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, later said that if the DUI news had never become public, Bush would have won the popular vote, eliminating the need for a recount.

In October 2004, when Bush was running for re-election, Osama bin Laden released a video that boosted the president’s position in the polls.

The video referred to the September 11 attacks and called President Bush a dictator, accusing him of repressing civil liberties by means of the Patriot Act.

The video put national security back at the forefront of public discussion and likely inflated support for the president.

Four years later, in 2008, John McCain was running for president against Barack Obama.

In October, the stock market crashed, unemployment reached an all-time high, and the global economy seemed to be on the point of collapse. The market crash was widely credited with helping Obama win the election.

October Surprise 3

The most famous October surprise of them all, however, could also be classified as a dirty trick.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was running for president against the incumbent, Democrat Jimmy Carter.

The Reagan campaign was reportedly afraid that Carter would orchestrate a last-minute deal to free the American hostages that had been held in Iran since 1979. Reagan’s staffers feared that if the hostages were released, Carter would get a huge bump in the polls.

In the event, though, Iran waited to free the hostages until just after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. Since then, theories have abounded as to what happened.

Many Democrats believe that Reagan himself made a deal with Iran, asking them not to liberate the hostages until after he won the election.

What’s clear is that, in the absence of an October surprise, Reagan was able to sweep to victory.

Use of “October Surprise” in a sentence

  • In the final weeks leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, both parties were on high alert for a potential “October surprise” that could shift the momentum in favor of one candidate.
  • The sudden revelation of the incumbent’s health issues, just days before the election, was seen by many as an October surprise that could potentially influence the outcome.
  • Political strategists often plan for an October surprise, a last-minute event or disclosure, to sway undecided voters in their candidate’s favor during a tight election race.