Politics dictionary

October surprise

[ ok-toh-ber ser-prahyz ]

What is an October surprise?

An October surprise is an unexpected event or breaking news story that generally happens in October and potentially upends the outcome of an election, especially a U.S. presidential election. (October is a crucial month leading up to Election Day in the U.S., which falls in early November).

October surprise has been used to refer to both planned and unplanned events. Whether or not October surprises actually have significantly impacted election results is debated.

October surprise has been used in political analysis since the 1980s, but it was originally used in the context of retail sales in the early 1900s.

Related words

political spectrum, drain the swamp, deep state, hit dog, Manchurian candidate

Where does October surprise come from?

breaking news

The term October surprise goes back to the early 1900s, when it was used in advertising and sales. Advertisements would joyfully announce an October surprise discount on a product and stores would hold an October surprise sale with lower prices. 

October surprise appears to have first entered the realm of politics during the 1980 presidential election between incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s team worried that Carter would reveal that he had negotiated the release of the American hostages from Iran immediately before Election Day. They referred to a possible sudden reveal as an “October surprise.” The month of October is used in the phrase because American elections occur in early November. 

Reagan’s feared October surprise never happened, and Reagan easily won the election. However, the term October surprise became established as a political term

Usually, the term October surprise is used to mean an event that was planned or appears to have been planned. Often, conspiracy theories emerge that seemingly “random” sudden reveals have been orchestrated by one of the candidates. In fact, it is still a common myth that Reagan actually negotiated with Iran against the release of the hostages before the election to prevent his feared October surprise.

While an October surprise could happen before any election, the term is most often used to refer to presidential elections. Here are some examples of events that have been referred to as an October surprise:

  • In 2000, it was revealed five days before the vote that Republican candidate George W. Bush had been arrested in the 1970s for drunk driving. 
  • In 2004, al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden released a video a week before the election threatening America and taunting President Bush. The Bush campaign used the video to claim that Bush would keep America safe.
  • In 2012, Hurricane Sandy raged across the East Coast 10 days before the election. President Barack Obama was praised for his handling of the disaster while challenger Mitt Romney was hesitant to campaign during the tragedy. 
  • In 2016, both candidates were the victims of an October surprise. In October, multiple news outlets revealed Republican candidate Donald Trump’s scandalous past involving women. Democrat Hillary Clinton also received an unpleasant October surprise after WikiLeaks released emails from Clinton’s private email server on October 7 and FBI Director James Comey claimed Clinton’s emails were being investigated on October 28.  
  • In 2020, the media highly anticipated a possible October surprise orchestrated by the campaign of President Trump. For Democrats, the fears were a legitimate concern as many believed that the 2016 Clinton email scandal played a part in leading to Trump’s victory. The Trump campaign made an attempt to discredit President Joe Biden’s campaign with emails allegedly found on a laptop belonging to his son Hunter Biden. At the time, major media outlets could not verify the claims and did not publish them.

Examples of October surprise

I think we can all agree that this is enough surprises for October. We’re good, October.
@juliaioffe, October 2, 2020
As the US election approaches, political pundits worldwide have begun to speculate on an “October Surprise” ahead of the November 3 vote.
Bhim Bhurtel, Asia Times, September 7, 2020

Who uses October surprise?

The term October surprise always pops up during presidential elections.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of October surprise like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of October surprise that will help our users expand their word mastery.