In American political jargon, an October surprise is a news event with the potential to influence the outcome of an election, particularly one for the U.S. presidency. The reference to the month of October is because the Tuesday after the first Monday in November is the date for national elections (as well as many state and local elections), and therefore events that take place in late October have greater potential to influence the decisions of prospective voters.
The term came into use shortly after the 1972 presidential election between Republican incumbent Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern, when the United States was in the fourth year of negotiations to end the very long and domestically divisive Vietnam War. Twelve days before the election day of November 7, on October 26, 1972, the United States' chief negotiator, the presidential National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, appeared at a press conference held at the White House and announced, "We believe that peace is at hand". Nixon, despite having vowed to end the unpopular war during his presidential election campaign four years earlier, had failed to either cease hostilities or gradually bring about an end to the war. Nixon was nevertheless already widely considered to be assured of an easy reelection victory against McGovern, but Kissinger's "peace is at hand" declaration may have increased Nixon's already high standing with the electorate. In the event, Nixon outpolled McGovern in every state except Massachusetts and achieved a 20 point lead in the nationwide popular vote. The fighting ended in 1973, but soldiers remained in Vietnam until 1975.
Since that election, the term "October surprise" has been used preemptively during campaign season by partisans of one side to discredit late-campaign news by the other side.
During the Iran hostage crisis, the Republican challenger Ronald Reagan feared a last-minute deal to release the hostages, which might earn incumbent Jimmy Carter enough votes to win re-election in the 1980 presidential election. As it happened, in the days prior to the election, press coverage was consumed with the Iranian government's decision—and Carter's simultaneous announcement—that the hostages would not be released until after the election.
It was first written about in a Jack Anderson article in the Washington Post in the fall of 1980, in which he alleged that the Carter administration was preparing a major military operation in Iran for rescuing U.S. hostages in order to help him get reelected. Subsequent allegations surfaced against Reagan alleging that his team had impeded the hostage release to negate the potential boost to the Carter campaign.
After the release of the hostages on January 20, 1981, literally twenty minutes following Reagan's inauguration, some charged that the Reagan campaign had made a secret deal with the Iranian government whereby the Iranians would hold the hostages until after Reagan was elected and inaugurated.
Gary Sick, member of the National Security council under Presidents Ford and Carter (before being relieved of his duties mere weeks into Reagan's term) made the accusation in a New York Times editorial in the run-up to the 1992 election. The initial bipartisan response from Congress was skeptical: House Democrats refused to authorize an inquiry, and Senate Republicans denied a $600,000 appropriation for a probe.
Eight former hostages also sent an open letter demanding an inquiry in 1991. In subsequent Congressional testimony, Sick said that the popular media had distorted and misrepresented the accusers, reducing them to "gross generalizations" and "generic conspiracy theorists." Sick penned a book on the subject and sold the movie rights to it for a reported $300,000. His sources and thesis were contested by a number of commentators on both sides of the aisle.
Bani-Sadr, the former President of Iran, has also stated "that the Reagan campaign struck a deal with Teheran to delay the release of the hostages in 1980," asserting that "by the month before the American Presidential election in November 1980, many in Iran's ruling circles were openly discussing the fact that a deal had been made between the Reagan campaign team and some Iranian religious leaders in which the hostages' release would be delayed until after the election so as to prevent President Carter's re-election" He repeated the charge in "My Turn to Speak: Iran, the Revolution & Secret Deals with the U.S."
Two separate congressional investigations looked into the charges, both concluding that there was no plan to seek to delay the hostages' release. At least three books have argued the case.