It’s been a perennial of presidential politics for almost half a century: the “October surprise,” a damning revelation about a candidate leaked just weeks before Election Day. Today’s news that the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server was being reviewed in the light of “new evidence” had headline writers using the term once again. And the revelation certainly fits the bill: Here we are just a week and a half before the election, and the potential for damaging news could upend Clinton’s lead in the polls.
Already, rival Donald Trump is taking full advantage of the revelation, telling a cheering crowd in New Hampshire today that Clinton is corrupt. And after weeks of claiming that the system is rigged against him, he expressed new hope that things would turn his way.
“It might be not be as rigged as I thought,” Trump told the crowd. “I think they’re going to right the ship, folks. I think they’re going to right this yet.”
But if history is any guide, Trump may not benefit from the news as much as he hopes.
Though long-ago presidential elections were upended by last-minute revelations, the term “October surprise” only really came into popular use after the 1972 contest between GOP incumbent Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern, which was shadowed by the unpopular Vietnam War. Just 12 days before the election, Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, announced that “peace is at hand,” which some say gave Nixon a boost and helped him win a landslide victory that year.
In almost every election since then, there have been “October surprises.” Most prominently, there were allegations that GOP nominee Ronald Reagan had cut a deal with the Iranian government in 1980 to delay the release of American hostages until after his campaign against incumbent Jimmy Carter. More recently, revelations emerged shortly before the contested 2000 election with Al Gore that then-candidate George W. Bush had once been arrested for drunk driving.
Yet according to some scholars, the October surprise doesn’t always have much of an impact on the election. For example, Bush’s drunk driving arrest made huge headlines and raised concerns about the candidate’s prudence, but it barely moved the needle in the polls, noted Peter Hamby in a Shorenstein Center study: “While 83 percent of the public said they had heard of the story—a huge percentage—only 17 percent said they actually found the story ‘informative.'” And, as we all know, Bush went on to squeeze past Gore and win the election.
And arguably one of the biggest factors in the 2012 contest—Mitt Romney caught telling a room full of donors that 47% of the population are just “takers”—actually happened in mid-September. Since the recording was made in May and not released for four months, some called it an “October surprise,” but the author of the report explained that its late publication was due to negotiations with the anonymous man who recorded the comments.
Then there was the revelation in the final days of the 2008 election that Barack Obama’s half-aunt had been living illegally in Boston—a story that came out amid plenty of speculation about Obama’s birthplace. It cut his lead in the polls but didn’t prevent him from winning a solid victory.
In his letter to members of Congress, FBI Director James Comey said that he “agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.” What made the decision even more dramatic was that, just three months earlier, Comey came under fire from Trump and Republicans for closing the probe without bringing any charges, even though he said that classified material had been exchanged on the server and that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of her emails.
But in this election cycle, there have already been several October surprises: The New York Times‘s publication of details of Trump’s 1995 tax returns (revealing that he may not have paid taxes for up to 18 years) and the WikiLeaks dump of emails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, to name a few. The tax returns were delivered to the Times anonymously in a manila envelope and the emails are suspected to be tied to hackers linked to the Russian government. Neither of them had much of an impact in the polls.
The one revelation that has arguably had the biggest effect was the Access Hollywood tape of Trump’s groping comments, which shredded his support among independent women. The tape seems to have been leaked to the Washington Post by an anonymous staffer on the show and not likely due to Democratic opposition research or shenanigans.
Given that there have been so many startling revelations about both candidates this election season, it’s hard to imagine the latest email probe significantly moving the needle in either direction. If it does, that would be the biggest surprise of all.