As early as the late 19th century, you could open a newspaper in autumn and recognize the sentence October surprise. But it wouldn’t have made front page headlines – or had anything to do with an upcoming election.
“Our surprise sale in October is all it is [sic] Name Implies, ”boasted an advertisement from Hale Bros. in an 1888 edition of The Sacramento Bee. “Our SURPRISE VALUES in SILK, PLUSHES and VELVETS are worth mentioning.”
Merriam-Webster reports that October surprises were originally annual sales in department stores and other clothing stores. An advertisement from 1
During the 20th century the term was used in other contexts as well. When the Chicago Cubs hired Leo Durocher as their manager in 1965, the Chicago Tribune called it an “October Surprise”. Four years later The Pittsburgh Press published an article on Pennsylvania’s mercury fall weather under the heading “October Surprises.”
By 1980 the term could apply to almost any unexpected October event – and then it entered the political sphere on a large scale. According to the Smithsonian, it was Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, William Casey (whom Reagan later named director of the CIA). Reagan ran for president against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, and his camp was concerned that Carter’s team was working out a recent event that could affect voters late in the race.
“Reagan and his aides… expect [Carter] to pull what they call “the October surprise,” which means that just before election day it will raise the importance of an overseas event to rally the country around it. ” TIME wrote on July 28, 1980.
“Some Overseas Event” wasn’t exactly an abstract idea. On November 4, 1979, several dozen Americans had been taken hostage by Iranian students at the American embassy in Tehran, and Carter had tried – and failed – for months to negotiate their release. If he succeeded just weeks before the election, the victory could convince skeptical voters that he was indeed an effective leader deserving a second term. But Carter never made that particular October surprise, and Reagan won the election. The hostages were released on the day of Reagan’s inauguration, leading to conspiracy theories claiming he worked with Iranian authorities to postpone the release until after election day.
Since then the term October surprise has appeared in media coverage of presidential elections. Sometimes political pundits debate an actual October surprise – like the news of George Bush’s 1976 drunk-driving arrest, which broke out just before the 2000 elections – that they believe might sway voters. In other cases, they are just speculating about what potential October surprises might occur.