The Strange History of the October Surprise

Jared Keller in Smithsonian:

ObamaFriday, October 7, may have been among the strangest, most tumultuous days in American political history. No fewer than three events occurred that in any other campaign would have shocked the nation. Most infamously, The Washington Post released a devastating 2005 video showing Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women: “When you're a star they let you do it.” Moments later, Wikileaks released the transcripts of some of the Wall Street speeches delivered by Hillary Clinton, which had been a contentious point during the Democratic primary. This was all just hours after Trump had claimed that the “Central Park Five” were guilty, even though the suspects in the 1989 case were exonerated through DNA evidence and the true perprator has confessed. It was a day of “October Surprises” after the previous week had already had a few of them, including revelations from The New York Times that the Republican may have avoided paying federal taxes for some 18 years. The term “October Surprise” was coined by a 1980s political operative but has ever since been appropriated by the media to describe unexpected political disasters in the twilight hours of the campaign. Sometimes they are intentionally positioned by political opponents to impact voters, often days before they head to the polls. They aren’t always successful, but they’ve become a staple of modern politics. Though the term was coined by Reagan campaign manager and future CIA director William Casey during the 1980 campaign, the October surprise enjoyed a long, unusual history even before it entered American political vernacular:

2012: The Storm Before the Storm

Last election’s October surprise wasn’t the result of political scheming or well-timed investigative reporting, but a freak of nature. Hurricane Sandy, which devastated communities up and down the East Coast in the closing days of October, had two important effects: It took swing states New Hampshire and Virginia off the campaign trail for a week or two and gave President Obama the opportunity to appear presidential while responding to a national emergency. The image of then-popular Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie warmly greeting Obama in the aftermath of the storm didn’t help either, according to political analysts at the time. While Obama was already on the rebound in the national polls after a mixed performance during the presidential debates, Hurricane Sandy gave him an additional edge days before the election. The rest, as they say, is history.

More here.