An October surprise refers to the release of damaging or potentially damaging evidence about a candidate (true or not), right before a general election held at the beginning of November. The information is usually leaked at the tail end of October, so that it might influence voters who are undecided to not cast their vote for a particular candidate. Use of the October surprise is most common in presidential elections, and was once more commonly used to attempt to unseat incumbent presidents. In recent times, the October surprise may occur to defame the characters of either candidate for the presidency.
When an October surprise is generated by one political party, the candidate holds onto the most damning information about another candidate until October. The information is then leaked to the press with little time left for the accused candidate to do damage control. There doesn’t necessarily need to be “evidence” in an October surprise, merely suggestion of evidence, hints, or insinuations that alarm the voting public. This type of campaigning has proven effective in the past, though it is certainly a questionable practice, especially when the information leaked isn’t legitimate.
An October surprise doesn’t have to originate from the candidate who hopes to benefit by it. Instead, anyone in the media may call into question actions occurring in the world, the past actions of a candidate, or any number of things that can set the ball rolling on changing the minds of voters. It is thought that President Reagan benefited from an October surprise article written suggesting that incumbent President Carter was then planning an invasion of Iran to end the hostage crisis there. This created anxiety in the Reagan campaign, and conspiracy theorists to this day posit that President Reagan colluded with Iranian leaders to delay the release of hostages until after the election. Note this is theory only, and investigation by both houses of Congress many years later concluded that the charges were unfounded.
Sometimes information creating an October surprise doesn’t even come from the United States. A 2004 statement released in late October by terrorist Osama Bin Laden has been one of the reasons cited for the reelection of President George W. Bush, who was able to effectively use the statement to argue that his strong position on “The War on Terror” was better than Senator John Kerry’s position. For some voters on the fence, Bin Laden’s words created fear of a new leader for the country, an end to the war in Iraq, and reminded them of the attacks occurring on 11 September 2001.