TIME politics

How the Legend of the ‘October Surprise’ Came to Haunt D.C.

The Nov. 8, 1968, cover of TIME
The Nov. 8, 1968, cover of TIME TIME

Ebola and ISIS and oil prices, oh my!

You may have heard of the ‘October Surprise,’ a news story that bursts onto the public consciousness shortly before Election Day. Legend has it this sort of event can swing votes and sway electoral outcomes. The legend’s propagators — pundits, mostly — sift through the news all October long, searching for that one event worthy of being declared the October surprise. Only this October, the surprises kept ducking and bobbing the punditry like a game of Whac-A-Mole. No sooner than one story had made front page news, a rival story bumped it to page two. As October draws to an end, consider just a few of this season’s contenders.

Nominations kicked off in late September, with Barack Obama’s declaration of airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Ebola stole the show as a patient in Dallas transmitted the virus to two nurses. ISIS came roaring back with an assault on the Syrian village of Kobani, until the interagency tussle over Ebola quarantine protocols got top billing. Then there were the dark horses: Secret Service slip-ups, plummeting oil prices, “dark money” swamping the campaign trail. As late as Wednesday, a headline on CBS News pleaded, “Why aren’t gas prices the Democrats’ October surprise?”

“We’re up to our necks in them,” wrote syndicated columnist Bob Franken, a seasoned pundit who has previously tried to retire the phrase as an outdated relic from a cynical era. Surely there are more rational ways to interpret the news than to fixate on events that immediately precede election day, as if the voting public had the collective memory of a goldfish. So the legend’s refusal to go away raises an important question: Where did it come from and why won’t it die?

It has been traced to various sources. Former New York Times columnist William Saffire recalled hearing the phrase uttered by a Nixon aide in the run-up to the 1968 presidential election. The aide predicted that president Lyndon Johnson would announce an end to hostilities in Vietnam, thereby boosting public support for democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. At the close of October, the announcement came with great fanfare, taking the cover of TIME on November 8, as seen above.

It also appeared to confirm the Nixon aide’s suspicions, which by then were referred to in shorthand as the “October surprise,” according to Saffire. Historians have offered alternative narratives, some tracing the invention of the phrase to George H.W. Bush on the 1980 campaign trail.

Whoever coined the phrase, it didn’t come into popular use until 1980, when Reagan supporters began invoking it with rising alarm. Jimmy Carter, they insisted, would spring an announcement on the public shortly before election day. The announcement would relate to some modest policy achievement overseas. Carter would inflate its significance and rally voters to his side. They called it the “October surprise” and an early instance of that use was recorded by TIME in the July 28, 1980, issue.

It might have ended there, but the phrase resurfaced again in September. “The Reaganites talk nervously, and sarcastically, of an ‘October surprise,’” read one account from a TIME reporter. By October, it had become a common refrain. “All the Republicans now believe” it, read one story in TIME. A second story in the same issue noted that Republicans were “setting aside much of their warchest and buying up television time in advance in order to respond to an ‘October surprise’ by the President.”

With such a dramatic build-up, it’s no wonder that the phrase stuck after Jimmy Carter announced, as if on cue, the impending release of 52 American hostages from Iran. However, the release wouldn’t take place until after the inauguration, spawning competing theories that the announcement was timed to help Carter, while the release date was timed to help Reagan.

After that, the phrase took on a conspiratorial hue, referring to any event staged by a campaign to manipulate voters. Through gradual use, however, the phrase lost its potency. Today, it can refer to any surprise at all that falls within the calendar month of October. In short, it became a superstition. Anyone who has a Rube-Goldberg-like ability to connect world events to the electoral prospects of candidate so-and-so can play along. This month, the game was irresistible.

Read TIME’s 1968 cover story about Lyndon Johnson’s original October Surprise, here in the archives: The Bombing Halt

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 29

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Community colleges should lead the way in preparing America’s workforce, and states need to join the effort.

By Matthew Dembicki in Community College Daily

2. To bring Asian-American communities to the ballot box, we must overcome cultural barriers, and that starts with language.

By Akiko Fujita at the World

3. We should be honoring, not quarantining, health care workers who put their lives at risk to fight Ebola abroad.

By by Jeffrey M. Drazen, Rupa Kanapathipillai, Edward W. Campion, Eric J. Rubin, Scott M. Hammer, Stephen Morrissey, Lindsey R. Baden at the New England Journal of Medicine

4. Prison officials should judge inmates by their actions, not the color of their skin.

By the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times

5. Deliberate efforts to welcome and nurture immigrant families can help reverse the trend of shrinking rural populations.

By the Rural Family Economic Success Action Network

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Predict Who Will Win the Senate in 2014

Forget Nate Silver. Anyone can be a political handicapper. Place your bets on whether the Democrats or the Republicans will be victorious on Election Day

The professional election handicappers in Washington and New York are trying to cut you out of the process. They are using their fancy number machines to predict which party will control the U.S. Senate next year. The Washington Post says Republicans have a 91% chance of getting at least 51 seats, while the The New York Times and ESPN’s Nate Silver say there is a 63% chance.

But you shouldn’t let them do it alone. In America anyone can handicap an election. We’ve provided each candidate’s political strength and liabilities. And we’ve left out the political party to make you think harder about the individual candidates. So have at it. Tell us all who is going to win in each of the next ten races, and we’ll tell you who will win the Senate. Then share on Twitter and Facebook.

 

*Polling numbers from RealClearPolitics.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 16

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Accountability in education is essential and non-negotiable, and testing works. Just not in reading.

By Robert Pondiscio in Flypaper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

2. Carbon capture technology is costly, but could be an interim solution for climate change. And a carbon tax could pay for it.

By David Biello in Yale Environment 360

3. Immersive public art is improving lives and safety in one Detroit neighborhood — and serving as a model for other communities.

By Anna Clark in High Ground News

4. Presidential pool reporters are circulating their own news reports to bypass pressure from the White House Press Office.

By Paul Farhi in the Washington Post

5. Unregulated campaign cash and elected judges together undermine the independence of our judiciary.

By Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME 2014 Election

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu Gives President Obama a Passing Grade

“I think he’s had some really tough issues to deal with,” Sen. Landrieu said

On a scale of one to ten, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu said Tuesday that she rates Obama at “six to seven,” giving the president a passing grade even as vulnerable members of the Democratic Party work to distance themselves from the President as Election Day draws nearer.

During the candidates joint Senate debate in Louisiana, all three candidates for Senate—Democratic incumbent Landrieu, Republican challengers Rep. Bill Cassidy and retired Air Force colonel Rob Maness—were asked how they would rate both President Obama and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Obama, who has about an 38.7% approval rating in Louisiana, according to the Huffington Post pollster, was ranked zero by both Republican candidates.

Landrieu, however, was willing to cut him some slack. “I think he’s had some really tough issues to deal with,” Sen. Landrieu said.

Jindal fared better between the two Republicans, gaining a seven rating from Cassidy and a five rating from Maness. Landrieu gave Jindal a three.

The candidates sparred over issues like Common Core and health care coverage throughout the debate, with the Republican candidates largely focusing on Landrieu’s record of voting with the President. Because the race is split between three candidates, the contest may not be decided in November. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote on election day, a runoff election will be held on December 6.

TIME 2016 Election

George W. Bush Thinks His Brother, Jeb, Wants to Be President

Key Speakers At The World Business Forum New York 2013
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, speaks at the World Business Forum in New York, U.S., on Oct. 1, 2013. Peter Foley—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Could there be another Bush vs. Clinton presidential race?

Former President George W. Bush said in an interview that aired Thursday that he thinks his younger brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, wants to be president in 2016.

“He and I had a conversation,” Bush told Fox and Friends. “I of course was pushing him to run for president. He of course was saying, ‘I haven’t made up my mind.'”

Bush added, “I think he wants to be president.”

There has been significant speculation within the Republican Party as to whether the younger Bush, 61, will run for the office that his brother and father have previously held. It could potentially create another Clinton vs. Bush race for the White House if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to also announce her candidacy.

[CNN]

TIME New Zealand

New Zealand Set to Vote in General Elections Marred by Cybercontroversies

Journalist and author Glenn Greenwald, left, and Kim Dotcom attend a political forum at Town Hall in Auckland, New Zealand Monday, Sept. 15, 2014.
Journalist and author Glenn Greenwald, left, and Kim Dotcom attend a political forum at in Auckland on Sept. 15, 2014 Brett Phibbs—New Zealand Herald/AP

Is the Kiwi nation becoming a bastion of Internet-generation politics?

The climate enveloping New Zealand’s parliamentary elections on Saturday could be branded anything but politics as usual.

The vote marks an end to a campaign season marred by covert Internet bullying, revelations by hackers, and that could see Kim Dotcom, a cyberoutlaw wanted by the FBI, voted into the House of Representatives.

Not even two months ago, incumbent Prime Minister John Key looked set for a comfortable third victory, but then a book release upset the remote island nation’s political equilibrium. In Dirty Politics, investigative journalist Nicky Hager revealed how top members of Key’s cabinet had spread personal information about their opponents to a vitriolic right-wing blogger. Whale Oil, as the blogger is known, then went on to fuel online hatred directed at certain public servants, some of whom ended up receiving death threats from Internet commenters.

Hager claims that the material exposes “the covert attack machine run by the National Party and its allies,” the Guardian reports, and his oeuvre has completely taken over New Zealand’s political discussion ever since. Even though Key was not directly implicated, he’s been widely berated for his feeble response, having deferred sacking those central to the scandal and denouncing Hager as a “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist.”

Key also lashed out at the fact that Hager’s information was based on personal electronic communications allegedly retrieved by illicit means. “I think there’s a real risk that a hacker, and people with a left-wing agenda, are trying to take an election off New Zealanders,” he said.

That may not necessarily be the case, since Key and his National Party are still looking robust in the polls. Still, there’s a certain sense of the Kiwi elections are taking the shape of a cyberelectoral soap opera.

In the opposite corner stands the 6-ft. 7-in. figure of Kim Dotcom, who made a fortune from his file-sharing website Megaupload, but also drew the ire of the collective Hollywood community and FBI, who wanted him held accountable for infringing on copyright laws. After leading a lavish playboy lifestyle and being the subject of a dramatic 2012 police raid on his estate, German-born Dotcom has turned to politics. The 40-year-old has proclaimed that his Internet Party is the beginning of a global youth movement fighting for expanded freedom and privacy on the web. He is contesting the elections together with the Maori left-wing Mana party, and they look likely to win seats in parliament. Dotcom has also managed to attract international attention to his cause.

On Monday, Dotcom shared an Auckland stage with three other prime U.S. security targets — Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden (the latter two via video link) — for a political forum named “Moment of Truth,” where the trio outlined how Key’s government had worked to implement a mass-surveillance program on its citizens.

Some have tried to downplay both the book release and the forum as spruiking, seeing as both took place so close to the vote. Whale Oil, whose real name is Cameron Slater, is even claiming that Hager’s source is none other than Dotcom himself. However, Hager says he would have “run a mile” if Dotcom had approached him with the leaked material.

“When a source is anonymous, like this person is, it’s possible to imagine all sorts of creepy things about them,” Hager told the Guardian. “But it is an intelligent, thoughtful person, I’m pleased to say — a nonpartisan person who I’m very comfortable working with.”

To date, Dirty Politics is Hager’s best-selling book. It remains to be seen what impact it will have on the elections, and to what extent New Zealand is turning into a bastion of politics for the Internet generation.

More than 3 million registered voters will elect 120 members to New Zealand’s House of Representatives on Saturday, with lawmakers chosen from 71 single-member constituencies and the remainder from party lists.

TIME republicans

Women Find GOP ‘Intolerant,’ Report Says

The Republican Party's elephant symbol is seen on display on October 24, 2000 at the Republican campaign headquarters in El Paso, Texas.
The Republican Party's elephant symbol is seen on display on October 24, 2000 at the Republican campaign headquarters in El Paso, Texas. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

A gender gap persists

Female voters have sharply negative views of the Republican Party, according to a new report of internal polling done by major GOP groups, the latest sign of the gender gap facing the party as it tries to recapture the White House in 2016.

Politico, which obtained a copy of the Republican polling, reports it found that many women consider the GOP “intolerant” and “stuck in the past.” The Republican groups that commissioned the polling, the Karl Rove-led Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network, hosted eight focus groups over the summer and survey about 800 registered women voters. Pollsters found that 49% of women have an unfavorable view of Republicans, while just 39% feel the same about Democrats, Politico reports. The establishment-friendly GOP groups are warning that Republican elected officials “fail to speak to women in the different circumstances in which they live” They’re advising officials to champion equal pay policies, and suggesting Republicans change the way they handle the issue of abortion: “Deal honestly with any disagreement on abortion, then move to other issues,” the report says.

Republicans are expected to easily keep their majority in the House and may even recapture the majority in the Senate during the coming midterm elections. But the gender gap will be more troublesome in the 2016 presidential election, especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

[Politico]

TIME Japan

Japanese PM Abe’s Security-Policy Shift Blamed for Local Poll Loss

Japan's PM Abe delivers an address to both houses of parliament in Australia's House of Representatives chamber at Parliament House in Canberra
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers an address to both houses of parliament in Australia's House of Representatives chamber at Parliament House in Canberra July 8, 2014. Lukas Coch—Reuters

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces backlash just weeks after reversing Japan’s security policy

The first signs of a backlash against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have appeared since he dramatically changed the country’s defense policy earlier this month.

Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats, lost a gubernatorial election in Shiga prefecture in what is perceived as a protest vote against the July 1 ending of the country’s ban on “collective self-defense,” reports Reuters.

The pacifist policy has defined postwar Japan, but Abe argued that the nation needs a new security policy in the current political climate, hinting at territorial disputes with China. In response, however, voter support for the 59-year-old Premier has already dropped below 50%, according to a recent public-opinion survey.

Abe is not up for re-election until 2016, but three other prefectures will elect governors later this year. Japan will also have several more polls next April.

The ballot also revealed divisions within the Japanese electorate regarding the East Asian nation’s nuclear policy following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

Many voters in Shiga prefecture are wary of the Prime Minister’s plans to restart nuclear reactors in neighboring Fukui prefecture. By contrast, Shiga’s new governor, Democratic Party member Taizo Mikazuki, called for Japan to reduce its reliance on nuclear power.

[Reuters]

TIME France

France’s Far Right Could Benefit From Sarkozy’s Legal Woes

Nicolas Sarkozy
Sarkozy's legal cloud puts his political future in doubt Kenzo Tribouillard—AFP/Getty Images

The former French President is under investigation, putting his political future under a cloud—and giving Marine Le Pen an opening

Even in a country where political scandals are a constant, the French were stunned to see their former President Nicolas Sarkozy hauled into a police station on July 1 for 15 hours of interrogation. Sarkozy was brought before judges well after midnight that day, where he was formally placed under investigation for corruption and influence peddling, relating to suspicions that Sarkozy had tried to wrest information from a senior judge about a legal case being built against him. An exhausted-looking Sarkozy was shown on television in the back of a police car, clearly shaken by his ordeal. “Is this normal?” Sarkozy asked in a national television and radio interview on the evening of July 2—his first such Q&A in two years—that had millions of viewers spellbound. “I’m profoundly shocked at what has happened.”

But besides his shock, Sarkozy, who lost his reelection bid to President François Hollande in 2012, might already be plotting his next political move—a move that could involve casting himself as the victim rather than the villain in his latest legal drama. As the French absorbed the newest accusations against Sarkozy, the ex-president has emerged in this week’s blanket media coverage as a lone wolf up against the establishment. That’s an ironic twist for a politician whose image as the consummate insider partly led to his reelection defeat. Two days after Sarkozy’s 15-hour police grilling, Sarkozy watchers say they believe he has several options ahead—not all of them bad. “He could become chief of the opposition in fighting both Hollande and the judges,” Christophe Barbier, editor of the French newsweekly L’Express, told TIME on Thursday. “That seems the most probable solution.”

Sarkozy has faced so many investigations since winning the presidency in 2007 that he and his lawyer had tried to avoid surveillance by using prepaid telephones registered in other people’s names. Police tapped those phones, however, leading them to focus on whether the two men tried to wrangle details about the case against Sarkozy from a top appeals-court judge—the subject of his grilling on Tuesday. The charges could lead judges to bring the case to trial, with Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog potentially facing a five-year sentence and a $680,000 fine if found guilty. To say the least, that would hugely complicate Sarkozy’s ambitions for a comeback against the beleaguered President Hollande in the 2017 elections.

Even if the former president beats this new investigation, however, it is not his only legal battle. Last year, investigators finally dropped charges alleging that Sarkozy took advantage of the aging billionaire L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt by taking millions of euros from her to fund his 2007 presidential bid. But they are still probing allegations that Sarkozy sought some $68 million for his 2007 campaign from then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi—the investigation in which he is now suspected of interfering with the senior judge.

But this week’s grilling cuts to the heart of a deeper issue, and it is one that rankles French voters: whether the alleged behavior of Sarkozy was just business as usual for the country’s famously cloistered elites. It could be “simply part of the bullying tactics of people in power that have been tolerated so far,” says Agnès Poirier, author and columnist for the political magazine Marianne, writing in the Guardian on Wednesday. Sarkozy, says Poirier, has regularly demanded information from officials about investigations against him, including once calling the head of the French intelligence service. “If nothing else, this new episode is shedding some more light on “‘le système Sarkozy,'” Poirier said.

Still, Sarkozy is hardly ready to hang it up politically. After laying low for Hollande’s first year in office, he has spent months angling for a return, and has said he intends deciding his next moves—including a possible presidential bid—by summer’s end. Enraged and combative on television on Wednesday night, Sarkozy nonetheless worked hard to dismantle the image of himself as someone accustomed to special access. He called the new charges “grotesque,” but quickly added, “I’m not demanding any privilege.” His voice dropping to a low rasp, he said, “If I have made mistakes I will face the consequences.”

Yet some of the consequences of Sarkozy’s legal battles are already contributing to the deep disarray of French politics. Sarkozy fares much better than President Hollande in most polls, and the former president is popular among many UMP voters, with supporters mobbing him on the sidewalk after his interrogation on Tuesday. Yet the UMP is locked in its own struggle for power. Jean-Francois Copé was appointed as leader only after bitter infighting. Since he resigned in May three former prime ministers have been running the party in an awkward, interim arrangement, as they wait to see what Sarkozy will do.

In fact, there is only one clear winner in this political upheaval: Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, which won the most French votes in the European Union elections in May, and which grabbed nearly one-quarter of the votes in France’s municipal elections last March, largely by slicing off support by disaffected UMP-ers. Pitching the two major parties as corrupt and ineffectual, Le Pen has soared in the polls. She told TIME in May that she believes she is headed for the top, that she intends running for president and that she believes that “the National Front will be in power within 10 years.”

Barbier, editor of L’Express, believes that much will depend on whether Sarkozy can cast himself as a new man: calm and reflective, rather than the volatile, temperamental man the French remember from his time in office. “If he is more calm, more tranquil, if he goes into it in that style,” Sarkozy could perhaps prevail, Barbier says. He believes Sarkozy’s first move might be to take back control of the UMP, and knock it into shape, ready for the presidential race in 2017.

Sarkozy’s makeover might already have begun. After a mostly combative TV interview on Wednesday night the former president struck a more conciliatory tone afterwards, tweeting: “I love my country passionately and I am not a man to be discouraged.” His supporters hope that passion and tenacity will be enough to carry their man through.

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