What Does "October Surprise" Mean? The Election Jargon Has A History In Presidential Races

Just when it looked like smooth sailing to the White House for Hillary Clinton, FBI Director James Comey sent a letter notifying Congress about the discovery of emails that could possibly be related to the agency's investigation of the Democratic nominee. That's been referred to as an "October surprise" for Clinton, but not just because it's October and, well, a surprise. So what does October surprise mean? The term actually has a history in presidential elections.

The term is political jargon for a news item that could affect the outcome of an election, particularly the presidential race. So in this case, Comey's October surprise for Clinton was alerting Congress to updates in the investigation, which goes against the FBI's typical protocol.

It's no secret that many voters have a hard time trusting Clinton. In a Washington Post/ABCNews poll conducted before the first presidential debate, 62 percent of respondents said that Clinton wasn't "honest and trustworthy," so anything further calling her credibility into question could drive voters away. Thus, the October surprise.

Although Comey did go against the advice of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, it isn't clear if this October surprise was an intentional attempt to derail Clinton's campaign or not. But not all October surprises are intentional.


The term first became popular during the 1972 election. Incumbent Richard Nixon was going up against George McGovern, and Nixon had not yet delivered on his promise to end the Vietnam War. But on Oct. 26, just about two weeks before the election, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger announced that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. That gave Nixon, who was already leading in the polls, a bump that allowed him to cruise to a landslide victory (even though the war wasn't actually over.) It went on for an additional two-and-a-half years after Nixon's administration made that announcement.

Comey's letter isn't the first October surprise of the election. After the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape was released and Trump had to spend time doing damage control for the lewd comments that he made, many women stepped forward and accused him of sexual assault (which he has consistently denied). It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the polls have finally begun to show a clear path to victory for Clinton rather than the nail-biting election that it has been. That is, if this latest October surprise doesn't dismantle the whole thing.