8 October Surprises In U.S. History That Had Huge Political Implications
In most presidential elections, you only get one so-called October Surprise. If you're not familiar with that term, it's pretty straightforward ― some unexpected twist of fate, revealed scandal, or new revelation that upends the trajectory of the race in the closing month, so close to the finish line that it leaves a candidate unable to effectively rebound. And in the 2016 race, we've already had a slew of incidents that have contended for that title ― so, are you curious at all about other October surprises that had huge political implications?
Luckily, there's no shortage of them. The world of presidential politics is, needless to say, high-stakes and cutthroat, and it's not uncommon for something devastating to happen in the final act of a campaign. This year, we've already seen Republican nominee Donald Trump bragging on tape about groping and kissing women without consent, followed by more than a dozen sexual assault allegations (all of which Trump denies, calling his accusers "horrible liars").
And on the Democratic side, though it hardly rises to the depravity of the Trump allegations, a slow trickle of hacked, oft-embarrassing emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta have proven to be a relentless thorn in Clinton's side, along with FBI Director James Comey announcing there were new emails to look into. Here are eight examples of October surprises from throughout American political history.
1. Nixon Interferes With The Vietnam Peace Process (1968)
During the 1968 election, and in the thick of the Vietnam war, the Lyndon Johnson administration was actively working to secure a peace deal that could both end the bloodshed, and potentially give Vice President Hubert Humphrey the boost he needed to defeat former Vice President Richard Nixon in the general election. It wasn't to be, however ― through back-channel communications to South Vietnam's Nguyen van Thieu, Nixon and his allies persuaded Thieu that a better deal could be reached with a Nixon administration.
While it's impossible to say conclusively whether peace would've been brokered successfully otherwise, Nixon and his team's interference was nonetheless likely illegal, as the Logan Act prohibits private citizens from meddling in American diplomacy. Nixon won the election, and would win reelection before resigning in disgrace over the Watergate affair.
2. Iran Refuses To Release American Hostages (1980)
When a group of Iranian students took 52 Americans (many of them diplomats) hostage in 1979, it became a major point of vulnerability for the 1980 reelection campaign of then-President Jimmy Carter, reinforcing damaging perceptions that he was a weak figure on the international stage, as compared to the sharper-tongued, more militaristic Ronald Reagan.
And when Iran announced that they wouldn't release the hostages until after the election was over, it was widely believed to be a deathblow against Carter's chances.
3. The Iran-Contra Indictments (1992)
Just days before the 1992 presidential election, on Oct. 29, former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger was indicted over the Iran-Contra scandal, when the Reagan administration illegally sold arms to Iran in exchange for hostages and illegally funded right-wing rebel factions within Nicaragua.
George H.W. Bush had long insisted he had no prior knowledge of the nature of the arms-trading, but notes taken by Weinberger during a 1986 Oval Office meeting suggested otherwise. While Bush was trailing Bill Clinton in the polls to begin with, this was simply one more nail in his political coffin.
4. George W. Bush's Drunk Driving Arrest (2000)
In the run-up to the 2000 election between then-Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the race was rocked with the 11th hour revelation that Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in Midland, Texas, in 1976.
He ultimately won the presidency in one of the narrowest and most controversial races in American history, losing the popular vote but winning the electoral college after the Supreme Court halted recount efforts in the state of Florida.
5. Osama Bin Laden's Video (2004)
Just three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released a video to Al Jazeera taunting and threatening the American public for U.S. military actions and occupations in the Middle East, which many political observers credited with reinforcing a neoconservative narrative of the race ― polling samples taken after the video came out seemed to suggest that it did indeed help Bush, and hurt Democratic challenger John Kerry.
6. Hurricane Sandy Hits New York & New Jersey (2012)
Sometimes Mother Nature interferes in our politics, too ― like in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy rocked the northeast in the closing weeks of the race, causing major damage, and providing President Obama a chance to show some calm presidential leadership. To be clear, it's not actually true that Sandy played a pivotal role in President Obama's reelection, at least not as far as the polls showed, which had Obama up relatively comfortably throughout the race.
But it did become a source of major consternation within the GOP, due to New Jersey's high-profile Republican governor Chris Christie's embrace of Obama when the president arrived to survey the damage.
7. Wikileaks Releases The Podesta Emails (2016)
Even though the Podesta emails haven't revealed anything devastating to Clinton's candidacy just yet, beyond the sorts of internal bickering, conflict, off-the-record barbs and center-left/far-left divides that are common features of Democratic Party politics, it's undeniable that they've given the campaign a very stressful month of October. And it's not over yet ― Wikileaks has been rolling them out in small quantities to try to maximize their impact, with 22 tranches released so far.
8. The Trump Tape/Sexual Assault Allegations (2016)
And, of course, the foremost October surprise of this campaign season ― the still-expanding allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Trump, which began with the video of him boasting about grabbing women "by the pussy" in that infamous video on the Access Hollywood bus, and has since spiraled into more than a dozen allegations from women who've come forward publicly. Trump, for the record, denies the allegations, and has excoriated his accusers as "horrible liars," as well as threatened to sue them following the election.