In the History of ‘October Surprises,’ There’s Nothing Like Hurricane Sandy

Sophie Quinton
National Journal

Hurricane Sandy has already disrupted early voting in some states, altered President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign schedules, and consumed the news cycle for days. There’s little precedent for a storm of this magnitude making landfall so close to a presidential election, though there is a history of surprise events shaking up an election in the days before voters head to the polls. Here’s a list of six others, compiled by National Journal.

Last-minute events tend not to alter the fundamental dynamics of a presidential race. But bad news for a struggling campaign can depress hopes for a late revival, and in recent years—as elections have become tighter contests—even small shocks have been accused of having an outsize effect.

The storm currently lashing the East Coast is expected to threaten lives and leave millions without power. If Obama oversees a robust response effort, that could help his chances—and Team Obama should be thankful that the storm is landing this week, rather than on Nov. 6. A 2007 study found that “for every one inch increase in rain above its Election Day normal, the Republican presidential candidate received approximately an extra 2.5 percent of the vote.

1. PRESIDENT JOHNSON CALLS A BOMBING HALT. Ahead of the 1968 election, Republican candidate Richard Nixon’s chances of defeating then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey were good. The war in Vietnam had bitterly divided Democrats, and President Johnson’s civil-rights reforms had pushed many Southern Democrats into Nixon’s camp. Five days before the 1968 election, Johnson announced a bombing halt in Vietnam—a move that some speculated was timed to help Humphrey’s bid. But the announcement did not change the contours of the race, and came too late to buoy support for Johnson’s veep.

2. KISSINGER DECLARES ‘PEACE IS AT HAND.’ News of peace negotiations in Vietnam gave a late-in-the-game jolt to President Nixon’s reelection campaign. Twelve days before the election, national-security adviser Henry Kissinger held a press conference announcing progress in peace talks, declaring, “Peace is at hand.” Kissinger’s words didn’t win the election for Nixon—he was already well positioned to defeat Democratic nominee George McGovern—but talk of peace from the Nixon camp undermined McGovern’s peace platform. The war dragged on for over two years after Kissinger’s statement, and Kissinger acknowledged in a 1982 interview that his words could have been better chosen.

3. CARTER TRIES TO GET THE HOSTAGES HOME. The Iranian hostage crisis plagued President Carter throughout his bid for reelection. The hostages, seized at the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, were held captive in Iran throughout 1980. Carter’s attempts to use economic pressure to release them didn’t produce immediate results, and his attempt to spring the hostages through a helicopter rescue failed. In September, Iran contacted the Carter administration with a proposal to end the crisis, and negotiations continued through October. Rumors swirled that Carter would announce a release before Election Day, but Carter failed to finagle a hostage release before his defeat at the polls. Although the Carter administration negotiated the release of the hostages before Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, success came too late to alter the American public’s dim view of Carter’s foreign policy.

4. THE IRAN-CONTRA SCANDAL CASTS A SHADOW. In the final days of President George H.W. Bush's run for reelection, an indictment in the Iran-Contra investigation issued on Oct. 30, 1992, revived memories of Reagan-era scandal days. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh indicted former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger—for the second time—for secretly selling arms to Iran and lying about it to Congress. The grand-jury investigation went on to release evidence that Bush had been involved in the decision to make the arms sales while serving as Reagan’s vice president, an involvement Bush had denied. Bush’s reelection bid was already a long shot, but new evidence of scandal and mismanagement did nothing to help his chances.

5. GEORGE W. BUSH’S DRUNK-DRIVING RECORD SURFACES. The revelation that Republican nominee George W. Bush had been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in 1976 came five days before the 2000 election. In his memoir, Bush adviser Karl Rove claims that the report cost Bush five states—and accused Democrats of leaking the news to boost Democratic nominee Vice President Al Gore. “Did this last-minute revelation of Bush’s decades-old DUI hurt?” Rove wrote, according to an memoir excerpt. “Yes, a lot.” The revelation knocked the campaign off-message, raised alarms with Bush’s credibility, and diminished support for Bush among evangelical and socially conservative voters, Rove wrote.

 6. OSAMA BIN LADEN SENDS A MESSAGE. A video message from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden gave President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign an October boost, and Bush’s Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, later blamed the video for his loss. "I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race," Kerry told NBC’s Meet the Press in January 2005. "And the tape--we were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flatlined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday." The video led voters to feel less secure about electing a new president while the nation was at war, Kerry suggested. In the video, bin Laden referenced the U.S. election: “Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands,” said the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.