Why you should care
Because what happens in October can upend an election — and this isn’t the first time a presidential campaign has been rocked to its core.
As the heated contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump enters its final month, we have already enjoyed a host of October surprises — those last-minute bombshells that drop just before Election Day.
Revelations like Trump’s lewd tape, the sexual assault allegations levied against him or the release of Clinton campaign emails by WikiLeaks aren’t the first of their kind. And you’re probably familiar with past 11th-hour surprises that have struck recent presidential elections, such as the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush’s DUI in 2000, Osama bin Laden’s threatening video in 2004 or Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But, as Joseph Cummins chronicles in Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, American history is filled with lesser-known moments that jarred presidential races as they entered the homestretch.
1880: James Garfield’s “Chinese Problem”
Long before Hillary Clinton’s dream of “open borders” was leaked, James A. Garfield fell victim to America’s first October surprise when a letter allegedly written by the Ohio congressman emerged in which he dismissed the fear that Chinese laborers would take Western jobs, saying businesses could “buy labor where they can get it the cheapest.” The letter proved to be a forgery, but it cost Garfield the state of California, and almost the election.
1912: Teddy Roosevelt Is Shot
The 1912 race got a surprise jolt in the form of a bullet fired into the chest of Roosevelt, the former president and Bull Moose Party candidate, while he was delivering a speech in Milwaukee. The bullet fractured a rib, but Roosevelt continued his speech. “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot,” he casually observed, “but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”
1920: Warren G. Harding Has “Negro Blood”
Warren G. Harding had no shortage of extramarital affairs and skeletons in his closet, but that didn’t stop a racist college professor from starting the rumor that the Ohio senator had “Negro blood.” Harding, who would win the election, responded to the birther-like allegation head-on: “How do I know? … One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.”
1940: FDR’s Civil Rights Scare
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for re-election was dealt a sudden blow a week before the 1940 election when his hot-tempered press secretary Steve Early dealt a blow to the groin of a Black police officer who had prevented Early from boarding a train. The incident set off a firestorm, reminding voters of FDR’s poor progress on civil rights. But Early apologized and Roosevelt managed to contain the political damage.
1964: LBJ and the YMCA
President Lyndon B. Johnson had to deal with his own aide’s last-minute scandal in 1964 when top staffer Walter Jenkins was arrested at a YMCA for soliciting sex from another man in a restroom. The potentially damaging sex scandal, however, was soon drowned out by other events, including the explosion of China’s first atomic bomb.
1968: LBJ’s Halloween Peace Offering
Four years later, Johnson tried to engineer his own October surprise to help fellow Democrat Hubert Humphrey defeat Richard Nixon when he announced on Halloween night that the U.S. would cease bombing in North Vietnam and begin peace negotiations. Humphrey briefly surged in the polls, but when South Vietnam’s president refused to participate, the gambit failed.
1992: Iran-Contra Bites Bush
Four days prior to the closely fought election in 1992, an independent counsel indicted former Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for the Iran-Contra scandal, helping further damage former Reagan VP and then-President George H.W. Bush’s chances for re-election. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, but pardoned Weinberger before leaving the White House.