MediaFile History: The October Surprise

The media’s favorite phrase in the month of October was “October Surprise,” due to a promise that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange made that didn’t end up coming to fruition. But since that announcement, reporters have been running the phrase during the tumultuous final month of the campaign season.

But this principle is nothing new: The history of October Surprises in American politics is surprisingly rich and strong. In a media history primer you didn’t think you needed, MediaFile works through some of the most famous and scandalous October Surprises in campaign history.

1880: Before there were Emails there were… Forged Letters


New York Times Screenshot

On October 20, 1880, the New York Truth published a three-sentence letter falsely attributed to Republican nominee James A. Garfield. The note, addressed to an H.L. Morey of Lynn, Massachusetts, voiced support for Chinese immigration to the U.S. The letter came at the height of anti-Chinese xenophobia in the United States. It was later admitted that a lawyer named Henry Hercules Hadley forged the letter, but the October surprise nearly cost Garfield the election.  

1968: Good Morning, Vietnam!


New York Times Screenshot

In order to prevent Lyndon B. Johnson from engineering a last-minute peace deal with Vietnam, Nixon reached out to South Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu through backchannels. He encouraged Thieu to not attend peace talks and assured him that if Nixon won the presidency, South Vietnam could expect strong support from his administration. Three days before the election, the South Vietnamese withdrew from the peace talks, and Nixon won this one.

1972: Nixon Alone Can Fix It.


New York Times Screenshot

At the end of October in 1972, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, held a previously scheduled press conference announcing peace in Vietnam. The problem was that statement was not entirely correct. The peace talks mentioned were not as productive as Kissinger made them seem. Nevertheless, Nixon shot up in the polls after the announcement.  

2000: Voting Under the Influence

Bush and Gore were essentially tied in polls only a few days before the 2000 presidential election when Fox News broke the news that 24 years earlier, Bush had been arrested for a drunk-driving in Maine. Bush’s campaign handled the scandal by saying that the scandal was so long ago that it didn’t have much effect on voters; the October surprise may have lost Bush five states. Without the loss of these states, Bush may have won the popular vote.

2012: Playing the 47 Percent Card

The 47 percent video is one of the most memorable moments of the 2012 election. The secretly recorded cell phone video showed Mitt Romney belittling nearly half of the American populace while insinuating that they would vote for the incumbent president no matter what. The video quickly became the center of the Obama campaign and Romney would later tell Fox News “That hurt.” While it is unclear how much of an effect the video had, Obama won in a landslide.

 2016: The Final Surprise – Weiner Enters the Email Fray

New York Post Twitter

New York Post Twitter

On Friday October 28th, The FBI announced it was going to be looking into a new batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Due to an investigation into the Anthony Weiner sex scandal, Clinton related emails were discovered on a laptop. Controversy came when FBI Director James Comey chose to release the information a few days before the election when the investigation began weeks ago.

While we don’t know what will come of the FBI announcing its re-hashing of the Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, we know it will go down in history in this crazy 2016 election cycle. Some experts believe that this particular ‘October Surprise’ may not have have much effect.

“Many voters have made up their minds and millions have already voted […],” Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin told MediaFile via email. “She might take a small hit for a few days, but the narrative is likely to change to something else.”

Some even believe that Hillary’s October surprise may help her in the polls by bringing attention to the importance of voting.

“Clinton voters are often not so enthusiastic about her, so if people see the polls are cloning closer together the level of complacency that many hold will be removed and lots of people will therefore come out for Clinton that otherwise might not,” said Xenia Wickett, Head of the US and the Americas Program at Chatham House, told CNBC.

Others disagree, saying that concrete evidence could make a small dip in the polls into something more concrete.

Dhavan V. Shah of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said that this situation is a “small dip that could get big if more concrete evidence of wrongdoing or mishandling comes out,” in an email to MediaFile.

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