Will there be an 'October Surprise' in Election 2012?

12:15 PM, Oct 1, 2012   |    comments
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By David Jackson, USA Today

October 1. 2012 - The month has turned, and election junkies are asking a familiar question: Will there be an October Surprise?

Taegan Goddard's Political Dictionary defines "October Surprise" as "a news event late in a political campaign that has the potential to influence the outcome of an election," but it is as much myth as reality.

 

Late-breaking news can affect elections, such as the late-game revelation of George W. Bush's DWI arrest in the 2000 election.

But big events can happen anytime. A pivotal development in 2008 -- the collapse of Lehman Brothers and subsequent financial meltdown -- happened in September.

Will Mitt Romney's "47% tape," disclosed last month, be seen as the big event of Campaign 2012? Or will it be the next unemployment report, due in October?

While some observers look to this month's debates for an "October Surprise," no one knows when -- of if -- anything will happen. That's the nature of surprises.

While we've always traced use of the term "October Surprise" to the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Taegan Goddard's Political Dictionary goes back even further:

"The term came first into use just after the 1972 presidential election, when the United States was in negotiations to end the domestically-divisive Vietnam War.

"Twelve days before Election Day, on October 26, 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger appeared at a White House press conference and announced, "We believe that peace is at hand." Though Nixon was widely considered the favorite for re-election over challenger George McGovern, the news proved beneficial to Nixon as he went on to win every state except Massachusetts in the election."

The New York Observer, meanwhile, cites a more familiar story:

"The term 'October surprise' is most famously associated with the 1980 campaign, when Republicans spent the fall worrying that Jimmy Carter would engineer a last-minute deal to free the American hostages who had been held in Iran since the previous year. Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a close race, but an awful economy and flagging national confidence made the president supremely vulnerable.

"Reagan's campaign was particularly worried because there had already been two instances in the '80 campaign cycle when news out of Iran had caused Carter's anemic popularity to (briefly) soar: When the hostages were seized in late 1979 and again when he authorized a bold but unsuccessful rescue mission a few months later. In those instances, the American public instinctively rallied around its president. This was no small factor in Carter's ability to beat back Senator Ted Kennedy's Democratic primary challenge. The release of the hostages, Reagan's forces knew, would almost certainly guarantee Carter's reelection.

"But Election Day came and went and the hostages remained in Tehran. (Instead, they were freed moments after Reagan was sworn in the following January -- a bit of timing that fueled years of unsubstantiated suspicion among Democrats that Reagan's campaign had struck a deal with the Iranians to prevent an October surprise.)"

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