What is an October Surprise? Trump's COVID Revelation Comes 31 Days Before Election

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19 on October 1, leading many to declare this incident as an early October Surprise.

Leaked tapes that captured Melania Trump expressing her frustration at the criticism of Trump's family separation policies and complaining about Christmas decorations were also called the October Surprise of this election, before the news emerged about the Trumps' test results.

But with two unprecedented stories in the first two days of October and 29 days of the month still to go, there is no knowing just how many October Surprises the 2020 election will produce.

What is an October Surprise?

The term October Surprise was coined by William Casey, Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, during the 1980 election. It refers to an unexpected impactful event that takes place in October, in the run-up to an election, and can have a major impact on the way people vote.

The October Surprise can be a planned political stunt to sway voters, a natural disaster or international incident, but they always occur weeks before a major election.

Though the term was coined in 1980, October Surprises have long been a part of American electoral history, as the following look back proves.

1880: Forged Letter

Arguably the first October Surprise took place 100 years before the term was invented. In 1880, a newspaper published an article allegedly written by Republican candidate James Garfield that suggested that there was no problem with American businesses hiring workers from China, at a time when many workers had racially charged concerned about an increase in foreign employees.

The letter turned out to be fake, but the damage had already been done. Though Garfield ultimately won the presidency, he lost California.

1884: "Rum, Romanism, and rebellion."

On October 29, 1884, Republican candidate James Blaine failed to immediately oppose a comment by a Presbyterian minister who labeled Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion."

Blaine eventually refuted the claim on November 1, but New York State Democrats used Blaine's late response to accuse him of being a "Catholic-hater."

The Irish Catholic community in turn voted for Grover Cleveland, who won New York and the presidency.

1968: Suspending Bombings

In 1968, Democrat Hubert Humphrey was behind Republican Richard Nixon in the polls. Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson announced on October 31 that he was suspending American bombings in North Vietnam.

This boosted Humphrey's position in the polls, as Nixon was running on a pledge to end the war. However, Nixon still won the election.

1972: "Peace is at Hand"

Nixon was likely to be re-elected in the 1972 election anyway, but his chances were boosted with an October Surprise when National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger announced on October 26 that "peace is at hand."

As Nixon had been elected on the promise of ending the war in Vietnam, which had still not ended four years into his presidency—and would continue for another two years after his reelection, this announcement gave Nixon's lead a boost.

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on October 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. President Trump traveled to Bedminster, New Jersey for a roundtable event with supporters and a fundraising event. The revelation that Trump has tested positive for coronavirus is being deemed an early October Surprise. Getty/Drew Angerer

1980: October Surprise Conspiracy Theory

The October Surprise term was coined during the 1980 election as a conspiracy theory surrounding the release of hostages in Iran. The conspiracy theory accused Ronald Reagan of delaying the release of the hostages in order to prevent Jimmy Carter orchestrating an October Surprise of his own, who was alleged to have been planning to rescue the hostages to secure his reelection.

1992: Iran-Contra Investigation

Four days before the 1992 election, news broke that Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice during the Iran-Contra investigation in the mid-1980s.

Republicans accused U.S. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh—a Republican—of using the indictment to dampen George H.W. Bush's re-election chances. Bill Clinton won the presidency, though Bush pardoned Weinberger before he left office.

2000: Bush Drunk-Driving Revelation

During the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the October Surprise arrived a little late and actually happened in November. Days before election day, it was revealed that Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence in Maine in 1976.

However, this surprise did not make much difference as Bush ended up winning the election.

2004: Osama bin Laden Video

During the first presidential election since the 9/11 attacks, a video of Osama bin Laden claiming responsibility for the attacks while criticizing the Bush administration was released, on October 27.

The video renewed interest in national security and increased support for Bush, boosting his position in the polls ahead of the election.

2012: Hurricane Sandy

Like Trump's coronavirus diagnosis, 2012's October Surprise did not come in the form of a political attack.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in late October 2012, it impacted the election in a few ways. Swing states New Hampshire and Virginia were taken off the campaign trail and then-President Barack Obama was given the opportunity to respond to a national emergency.

2016: Trump Access Hollywood Tapes and Hilary Clinton's Emails

The 2016 election saw both presidential candidates receive October Surprises.

On October 7, Access Hollywood tapes were released that caught Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and wanting to "grab them by the p****".

Then, at the end of October 2016, new emails relating to Hilary Clinton's personal server were discovered and investigated by the FBI.

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