The origins of the phrase “October Surprise” can be traced back to the 1980 election campaign, which was conducted in the shadow of the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran. Would President Carter save his presidency with an October Surprise finally freeing the hostages? As it turned out, Carter negotiated the release, but it occurred after the election, and the hostages were freed on Ronald Reagan’s inauguration day.
Today, October Surprise has evolved into a ubiquitous political reference, and it is increasingly showing up in coverage of the highly anticipated Nov. 7 midterm election.
A Google News search finds that this month alone (through Oct. 23) there have been 670 stories containing the phrase “October Surprise.” That is already more than triple the number of stories than in the even more heavily covered presidential election season of October 2004, when there were 201 stories containing “October Surprise.” In the last midterm election, in October 2002, there were only 28 references.
In this election—with analysts speculating about possible big Democratic gains and with such recent developments as the Mark Foley scandal and the increased tensions with Iran and North Korea—the term is back with a vengeance. (Recognizing that trend, one National Review Online posting complained loudly about “October Surprise Fatigue”).
A recent Washington Post story conducted a Nexis search to track the origins of the term and found that indeed, it first came from a Ronald Reagan advisor in 1980 who was worried that Carter might try some bold move – including invading Iran – to influence the course of that election at the last moment. Carter’s strict moral sense that politicizing the crisis would be wrong may have been a reflection of what undid his presidency. Later, in a twist on that plot line, “October Surprise” became a term co-opted by proponents of a conspiracy theory that Reagan had cut a deal with the Iranians not to release the hostages until after the election. No surprise was the surprise.
Now, a quarter century later, that phrase has become so popular in the media that it has spread from politics to other areas of news coverage—even the weather. At least a few headlines referred to the sudden snowstorm that buried Buffalo earlier this month as an “October Surprise.”
But at least no one’s blaming that one on the politicians.