Political pundits have pointed to several events in the last month – even the last week – as the much-anticipated “October surprise.” With President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, analysts say this may be the most shocking development yet of this election cycle.
In political jargon, an “October surprise” refers to a game-changing event that can irreparably damage one candidate’s chances and boost the other’s. It can come in the form of a calculated political attack – still a “surprise” to the public and the candidate it’s brought against – or something unplanned that can critically change the course of an election.
But as the examples below show, such events don’t always necessarily alter an election’s outcome.
The origin of the phrase
The term “October surprise” wasn’t initially political, according to Merriam-Webster. In the early 20th century, an October surprise advertised in a newspaper signified department store clothing sale that fell during autumn.
The term took on a political meaning during the 1980 presidential election,when it was first used by William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
That year, Reagan was facing President Jimmy Carter, and the overarching headline all year was the continuing Iran hostage crisis, when a group of Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took a group of Americans hostage.
Reagan’s campaign feared that Carter would announce a breakthrough in negotiations right before Election Day.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Reagan and his campaign staff wanted to preempt such a late-stage victory in the polls – an “October surprise.”
“The biggest fear in Ronald Reagan’s inner circle is that President Carter will get an unexpected boost in the campaign from an ‘October Surprise,’” the Washington Post wrote at the time.
Reagan won the election, and minutes after he was inaugurated in January 1981, the Iranian government freed American hostages who’d been held in Tehran for over a year, the magazine reported.