5 October Surprises From Past Presidential Elections

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An October surprise is any bit of news that breaks right before an election that has the capability to help determine the outcome of the race. Since voters are often swayed by these revelations, the right October surprise can swing a losing campaign right into White House. Here are a few notable examples.

1968: LBJ calls off the bombs.

The 1968 race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey looked like it would be an electoral rout. Nixon successfully ferreted away Southern Democrats who weren't too keen on Humphrey's support of civil rights, and liberal Democrats were disgusted with Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, third-party candidate George Wallace eroded some of the historical Democratic base that Humphrey would normally have won. Late in the campaign, Humphrey appeared to be doomed.

Right before the election, though, incumbent Democrat LBJ pulled a trick of his own. On October 31, 1968, he announced an immediate halt to all bombing in North Vietnam. This peaceful move, coupled with Senator Eugene McCarthy's late-October endorsement of Humphrey, unified the Democratic base and pulled Humphrey even with Nixon in the polls. Although Nixon obviously won the election and had a handy 301-to-191 majority of the electoral votes, he won the popular vote by just over 500,000, a much closer margin than anyone expected prior to LBJ's bombing cessation.

1972: Peace is at hand. Again.

Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972 is infamous for giving birth to the Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, but it's easy to see why Nixon would have been a bit nervous about his electoral chances. After all, voters elected him on a platform of ending the Vietnam War, which was still raging on. Although Nixon was probably going to beat challenger George McGovern anyway, an October surprise certainly didn't hurt his chances. Just like four years earlier, this one involved Vietnam. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger appeared at the White House on October 26 and announced to reporters that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. It was quite an announcement, and apparently not one that Nixon scripted. On White House tapes, he can be heard telling Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, "I wouldn't have said that."

The announcement gave Nixon's already stout lead another bump, though, and he ended up winning a landslide victory with almost 61% of the popular vote. You may recall that peace wasn't quite at hand; the war continued for another two and a half years.

1980: The Iran hostages remain in captivity.

Prior to the 1980 election the yearlong saga of the Iran hostage crisis held the nation's attention. If incumbent Jimmy Carter could somehow get the hostages freed before voters headed to the polls, he'd gain a serious leg up on challenger Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately for Carter, it didn't happen. In fact, the Iranian government decided right before the election that the hostages wouldn't be freed until the voting was over, and Reagan won the White House.

This bad news, coupled with the fact that the hostages were finally freed on the day of Reagan's inauguration the following January, leads some people to believe that the Reagan camp made some sort of backdoor deal with the Iranian government in order to secure the election. In return for hanging onto the hostages to prevent an October surprise in Carter's favor, the Iranian government would receive weapons from the Reagan administration. Although two congressional investigations found these claims to be groundless, conspiracy theorists insist Reagan cut the deal.

1992: Iran-Contra scandal makes a comeback.

Although it may be difficult to remember now, the 1992 race was a fairly heated one. Incumbent George H.W. Bush faced two challengers, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, and both seemed capable of winning the election. (Perot may now be little more than a footnote in our minds, but at points in 1992 he actually led all candidates in national polls.) Four days before the election, though, the surprise showed up. Caspar Weinberger, who had been Reagan's Secretary of Defense, was indicted for lying to the independent counsel that had investigated the Iran-Contra scandal. Since Bush had served with Weinberger and had so far managed to avoid much of the Iran-Contra taint, this development seemed to be a blow to his reelection chances. Obviously, it didn't help, and Clinton won the election handily. Bush gave Weinberger a lame-duck pardon the next month.

2000: George W. Bush takes a tipple.

Any race as tightly contested as the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush is bound to have an October surprise. In fact, though, this election's stunner didn't break until November. Less than a week before voters headed to the polls, a Fox News report surfaced that Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence in Maine in 1976 following a night of boozing with former world tennis champion John Newcombe. Instead of trying to fight the accusation, Bush confirmed the story and told reporters, "I'm not proud of that. I made some mistakes. I occasionally drank too much, and I did that night. I learned my lesson." And, well, you know the rest.

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

After nearly one year of campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kamala Harris has officially bowed out of the 2020 election. She's not the only would-be president to call it quits so far. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

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