Politics: Gamechanging October Surprises

As the nation nears the 2018 midterm elections, journalist Jared Keller joins Tim to discuss some of his reporting on October surprises in American history. From the 1800s and the dirtiest campaign in American history, to that presidential campaigns of 2012 and 2008. How did those surprises impact election outcomes?


Jared Keller is a senior editor at Task and Purpose, a news site that covers military and veterans issues. He’s contributed articles to a wide range of media. We talked with Jared about one article he wrote in 2016 for the Smithsonian. The title was, “The Strange History of the October Surprise.”

Now that we’re into the month of October during an election year, the subject of October Surprises will inevitably come up. Campaigns save their best…or worst… for this time of year, hoping that any surprise announcements can help their campaigns while hurting their opponents.

  • 1800 – Thomas Jefferson v. John Adams – “Dirtiest campaign in American History?”
  • 1880 – James Garfield v. General Winfield Scott Hancock – New York Truth (ironically) published a letter allegedly written by James Garfield voicing concerns over Chinese immigrants stealing jobs from American workers. There was backlash against Garfield but it calmed before election day. An investigation found letter a fake, and the journalist who fabricated it was arrested for fraud.
  • 1912 – Woodrow Wilson v. Teddy Roosevelt – Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the middle of giving a stump speech. The bullet hit his prepared remarks (50 pages) he had stuffed in his suit coat. And he carried on with the speech. He said, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot. But it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”
  • 1968 – Richard Nixon v. Hubert Humphrey – Viet Nam war raging. Democrat Lyndon Johnson was president. Johnson suspended bombing missions in Viet Nam. Nixon ran on promise to end the war. Nixon sent an emissary to convince the South Vietnamese not to suspend hostilities.
  • 1972 – Richard Nixon v. George McGovern – Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced “Peace is at hand,” in Viet Nam only two weeks before election day. The voters felt better, and voted for Nixon, even though he was expected to win by then.
  • 1980 – It wasn’t October, but somehow, Ronald Reagan found a way to end the Iranian Hostage crisis that plagued Jimmy Carter and probably cost him the election. He looked week, while on Reagan’s inauguration day, we saw Iran release the hostages.
  • 1992 – George H.W. Bush v. Bill Clinton – Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice during an investigation into the Iran-Contra arms trading scandal. Bush was Reagan’s Vice President and couldn’t distance himself from it. He lost for that and for his (what would be a broken) promise, “Read my lips, no new taxes.”
  • 2000 – George W. Bush v. Al Gore – Fox News reported days before the election that Bush was arrested for drunk driving in 1976 after a night of partying with a tennis pro. Bush came clean in a press conference, admitted everything and said he learned his lesson. It worked.
  • 2012 – Barack Obama v. Mitt Romney – Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in the last days of October. Helped Obama’s leadership stature. And the photo op of all time – Republican Gov. of NJ Chris Christie fawned over Obama in the aftermath of the hurricane and it was all over the media.


About this Episode’s Guest Jared Keller

Jared Keller is as senior editor at Task & Purpose. Contributing editor at Pacific Standard. Other words for Aeon, The Atlantic, LARB, Maxim, Slate, Smithsonian, Village Voice.